In this post Naomi Winstone and Robert Nash reflect on findings from their recent HEA-funded project that explored students’ engagement with feedback. Through summarising the main stages of their project and some of the main outcomes, they raise critical questions about students’ own roles in the feedback process. Naomi and Robert endorse a shifting of focus in feedback practice from delivery toward recipience. This shift, they suggest, might promote a genuine sharing of responsibility for ensuring that feedback is effective and beneficial, and may even increase student satisfaction.
Much of the policy and academic research on assessment feedback in education focuses on delivery; that is, on how educators should prepare feedback and communicate it to their students optimally.
Yet despite on-going efforts throughout the education sector and some wonderful and diverse examples of good feedback practice, feedback is still the key area of student dissatisfaction, and indeed feedback can often appear to have a less-than-optimal impact on their learning development. So how far can we go with this delivery-focused approach? Are we looking for solutions in the wrong place?
The very best feedback is sure to be futile if students do not use it, assimilate it, and implement it in their future goals. A promising alternative (and complementary) approach, then, might be to focus not on how feedback is delivered, but instead on how it is received.
Our recent HEA-funded project set out to draw together and develop the evidence base concerning students’ use of feedback. We began with a period of consultation, scouring the existing research literature and consulting students on how they use (or don’t use!) feedback. We then carried out a phase of exploration, using controlled studies to examine aspects of students’ behaviour at the point of receiving feedback. Finally, we carried out a phase of intervention, in which we used what we had learned to design new educational resources for students.
These activities have enabled us to:
- Produce a systematic review of the literature on interventions for supporting students’ use of feedback. From this review, we have developed a taxonomy of interventions, and of the learning processes and attributes that those interventions target
- Publish new findings concerning students’ preferences for the content and format of assessment feedback, and on some individual differences in these preferences
- Identify and classify the various barriers that prevent students’ strong and effective engagement with feedback
- Use the various findings to develop a toolkit of resources for supporting engagement with feedback. We have also begun to implement and assess the effectiveness of these resources.
- Carry out CPD events for teachers, lecturers, and academic support staff on how to support engagement with feedback.
Take home messages
Along the way we have learned a great deal about feedback, but some broader ‘take-home messages’ have been particularly salient:
- For various reasons there is often a disjunct between what kinds of feedback students say and think they would find useful, and what kinds of feedback they actually use in practice. As educators we can often feel a pressure to enhance students’ satisfaction by giving them more and more of the feedback they prefer. This approach can sometimes cause teachers’ workloads to spiral out of control, yet it is also likely to be completely futile unless we intervene to ensure that the feedback is used.
- Whereas several feedback-recipience interventions could potentially be valuable, there is a risk that those students who stand to benefit most from these interventions are the students who use them least. We should therefore remain mindful of students’ individual characteristics and approaches to learning when considering how to nurture their engagement with feedback. Crucially, there is no apparent ‘one size fits all’ solution.
- Simply being receptive to dialogue with students about the individual instances of feedback we give is probably insufficient to promote their engagement with the feedback. What seems fundamentally important is to promote a culture that gives students opportunities to reflect broadly on the concept and experience of feedback: what its purpose is, what we can do with it, how we instinctively protect ourselves from receiving and accepting criticism, and what techniques we might use to identify and resist that instinct.
In short, for feedback to be remotely useful it needs not only to be delivered well, but also to be received well. For this reason, we believe that all educators need to find effective ways to share the responsibility of feedback with their students, and to establish dialogues about these mutual responsibilities. Effective responsibility-sharing should empower students and help them to develop the vital skill of self-regulation, becoming less dependent on being told precisely how to improve, and more able to transform modest amounts of effective feedback into goals, strategies, and action plans for the future. In principle, achieving the right responsibility culture should provide that almost paradoxical of situations: a simultaneous reduction of workload for educators, and an improvement in students’ quality of learning.
What of the issue of student satisfaction? Might requiring students to take greater responsibility in the feedback process serve to create dissatisfaction? Isn’t it safer to just give them what they want? Our experience has been that students feel very positively about being empowered to take a more proactive role, provided that their educators also do their bit in supporting them. Our students have shown a keen interest in the toolkit of resources we developed, and believe that using these resources will significantly improve their own learning. Overall then, we currently have more reason to believe that these shifts may be more likely to promote student satisfaction than to promote dissatisfaction.
Next time it feels like your feedback is futile, ask yourself: Should you be enhancing the information you’re delivering, or should you be working to enhance how it is received?
How do we increase students’ proclivity to pay attention to the detailed feedback they receive, rather than only to their grade?
In what ways do emotions influence the process of receiving feedback, and how can we harness this powerful influence?
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