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What Are You Saying?: Supporting Learning Through Effective Feedback

14 Apr 2022

Dr Lauren Mottle is The Brilliant Club’s Teaching and Learning Manager. In this blog, she looks at the methods and benefits of giving effective feedback, a core aspect of the training Brilliant Club tutors receive. You can find out more about becoming a tutor here. 

Most of us won’t have to think too far back in our memories to remember the last time we received feedback on a piece of work we had done.  Indeed, feedback is a vital part of most working cultures. This is prevalent in education where feedback to learners is a persistent, yet time-consuming task and provided formally and informally, verbally and in writing, and for low and high stakes purposes.

There has been extensive research into what constitutes good and constructive feedback.  Almost everyone who has delivered teaching in formal educational environments will have a memory of working their way through a pile of student work, providing marks and feedback, paying careful attention to the aspects we’ve chosen to feedback on and how we can use our language and phrasing to best support learners. However, many of us may also have the memory of a student quickly looking over that lovingly written feedback, checking their mark and then putting it in a folder, never to be reviewed again.

Previous research is clear on the potential impact that feedback can have on boosting student confidence and ability to recognise their own strengths and abilities and their skills in assessing and enhancing their own work.[1] In doing so, engagement with feedback can further develop a learner’s metacognition and self-efficacy, providing avenues for improvement that last well beyond a specific assignment, lesson or module. Moreover, as Advance HE reflects in their Feedback toolkit, feedback takes up a significant amount of professional time, so it is vital “to find ways to ensure it is effective and encourage students to learn from it.”[2] So how do we ensure our time is well-spent and that learners are able to benefit from the feedback we write?

Principles of Effective Feedback

At The Brilliant Club, we train our community of researchers – some of whom may have formal teaching experience, but most of whom don’t – to deliver effective feedback to the pupils they work with and embolden them with principles for effective feedback that can be carried into the undergraduate classrooms in which they work.  While there are numerous approaches to effective feedback, our training encourages tutors to focus on the following principles:

It is these last two principles that are perhaps most essential to allowing educators to have an impact on a learner beyond the short amount of time we spend with them in a classroom space.  In almost all cases, learners will never complete that specific assignment again in the future, particularly in the case of summative assessments. As such, our training programme, informed by a range of pedagogical scholarship, supports our tutors to see feedback as a two-way process, in which specific information or helpful criticism is given with the primary intention of helping learners improve, grow and advance. But how specifically can we approach and deliver feedback to embody this principle?

Fostering Active Engagement with Feedback

An important first step is to ensure that learners and instructors agree on the value and the purpose of feedback.  Studies in the field suggest that students often see feedback as a passive, one-way process that informs students primarily about the “correctness” of their work in the context of a specific essay or module.[3] Part of this reflects an uncertainty among learners about what to do with the feedback they receive. To overcome this barrier, David Nicol suggests that “feedback should be conceptualised as a dialogic process that involves coordinated teacher-student and peer-to-peer interaction as well as active learner engagement.”[4] This is not to say that effective feedback requires individual conversations with each learner. Instead, Nicol suggests the methods and language of feedback should be ones that promote thinking and conversation. This thinking and conversation could be an internal dialogue and/or an external conversation with a teacher or peers. To facilitate this, feedback should be clearly and directly linked to the specific assignment or task at hand and pose open-ended questions or prompts rather than containing mostly closed statements.

Taking up Nicol’s suggestion, feedback and assessment should be positioned as a learning experience rather than a summation of one’s efforts, or solely as an indicator of how well they have accomplished a task.[5] To do this, we need to develop a feedback literacy in learners by incorporating a self-assessment element into feedback. This self-assessment would provide structure to guide learners in their active engagement with feedback. It should encourage an internal, or external, dialogue with an eye towards improving a specific piece of work, but also in identifying principles that can be applied to future work. [6]

Below, we consider a range of strategies to support learner engagement with feedback. In reviewing the below, consider how these strategies simultaneously help students to reflect on their current work whilst developing skills of self-reflection, metacognition and self-efficacy, with an eye towards future development.

Strategy

Summary

Reverse BrainstormingLearners brainstorm how they could make their assignment worse to open doors into avenues for development. Learners then collaboratively identify what they have done well and what they could improve.
Think AloudModel how you personally engage with feedback by verbalising the internal thoughts you have while reviewing feedback. Ask learners to do the same.

One potential barrier for learners is the assumption that people are smart or “get it” because they are naturally better at learning and can “just do” challenging tasks. By thinking out loud, it makes the processes of learning visible, and helps learners develop their own internal dialogue to support critical analysis and evaluation. It also reveals the thought process of learning and challenges the idea that experts automatically to know what do without thinking.

An example think aloud 

Development InventoryLearners keeps a log of something they’re proud of and something they want to improve after each opportunity to receive feedback
Peer DialogueLearners provide feedback to their peers allowing each learner to…

–        Provide feedback in learner-centred language which may be more accessible within peer groups than feedback in formalised academic language

–        Experience the role of assessor, developing skills in evaluating work

–        Explore multiple perspectives on their work and witness the evaluation strategies of others

–        Learn that a “quality assignment” doesn’t only take one form

Feedback RequestsWhen submitting work, or preparing for a one-to-one feedback meeting, learners request feedback on one or two specific components of their work.

In providing feedback, you can focus on these areas while also pointing out additional areas for development. This strategy can also provide reassurance to learners who may feel that they’re not particularly good at something, but have actually been successful.

SNOB Analysis for Self-Assessment[7]Learners can conduct a SNOB analysis in between submitting and draft and receiving feedback or after the final piece of work has been completed. Depending on the context, you can set up the prompts to provide for learners.

Strengths – the things you did well and that you can continue to do in the final assignment/future assessments

Needs – things you think you need to do before you complete your final assignment/do the next assessment to give you the best change of improving your marks

Opportunities things you got wrong or missed that could help you improve/gain marks

Barriers – what you think could make it difficult to do the extra things you identified above

Follow Up TasksAfter reviewing feedback, learners share two questions about their feedback and one proposed action step.

Learners identify which piece of feedback will be most useful from their perspective, either for a specific task, or for future work

Sheffield Hallam University has also developed a feedback worksheet to support learners in their self-reflection and identifying next steps independently.[8]

Once you have considered how you can support learner engagement with your feedback, it is essential to ensure the actual feedback provided facilitates and opens up this space for reflection and dialogue.

Feedback as a Dialogue

Indeed, Nicol’s assertion that feedback should be conceptualised as a dialogue can be a useful framework for how we phrase our feedback. When marking a large number of assignments, it can be easy to forget that learners invest both time and emotion into their work and can often feel anxious when an authority provides feedback on their efforts.  We can all almost certainly remember a time when we shared something we had worked very hard on and received less than useful feedback emphasising the flaws and errors of our efforts but without any constructive guidance. To develop dialogue in feedback and ensure learners can identify avenues of development, we can adapt our language and focus on the aspects of a piece of work that can most directly contribute to a learner’s ongoing development.

Non-Dialogic Feedback

Dialogic Feedback

“This point isn’t clear.”I think you’re making a good point here. I think you mean X, but it could be clearer for the reader.
There was a missed opportunity to discuss intersectionality.This is a great point but think more closely about the relationship between race and gender.  How does this poem reflect the author’s identity as a person of colour and as a woman? What poetic devices do they use?
Anna Smith’s study refutes the point you’ve made here.This is a well-evidenced conclusion, but how does A. Smith’s study support or challenge your points? How could you explain this in more detail? In future work make sure you are considering a wide range of viewpoints.”

By asking more open-ended questions to support points of feedback, learners can start to develop the tools to think critically about what they have written, but also be steered towards the sort of connections that are most important to make within that discipline. In doing so, learners can understand what led to their mark on a specific task, but also look forward to the future by identifying and applying principles in future work.

Rather than feedback then, the most effective feedback embodies a feedforward approach. The feedforward approach focuses on what a student has done well, but also on helping them to develop the skills of reflecting on their feedback and identifying guidance they can take forward into future work. This is particularly imperative for The Brilliant Club’s mission, as we work to support less advantaged students across the UK access the most competitive universities, and to succeed when they get there. By actioning the principles of effective feedback, our tutors can support pupils to succeed in our programmes, but also to take the critical thinking and written communication skills forward into their future endeavours.

[1] HEA Feedback Toolkit (2013); Nicol, David, ‘From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35(5)(August 2010), pp. 501-517.

[2] HEA Feedback Toolkit (2013)

[3] Hattie and Timperley, “The Power of Feedback), 2007; Kulhavy, 1977, p. 212

[4] Nicol, David. “From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35, no. 5 (August 2010): 501-517; see also Boud, David and Elizabeth Molloy, “Rethinking Models of Feedback for Learning: The Challenge of Design,” Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 38, no. 6 (2013): 698-712.

[5] Brown, Sally and Phil Race, Using Effective Assessment to Promote Learning, in University Teaching in Focus: A Learning-Centred Approach, ed. by L Hunt and D. Chalmers, (Australian Council for Educational Research and Routledge, 2012), pp.74-91.

[6] Nicol, David. “From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35, no. 5 (August 2010): 501-517

[7] Anne Sykes, “Making the most of feedback”, 2010, p.6

[8] Stuart Hepplestone et. al., “A Student Guide to Using Feedback

Further reading