Reflections On Effective Feedback Use
By Carolina Kuepper-Tetzel
My post today is a personal reflection on effective feedback use. Feedback is a crucial aspect of the learning process. It helps us correct errors and improve performance in the future. However, effective feedback remains a problem in education. In the most recent National Student Survey in the UK (a survey that is conducted every year with thousands of university students in their final year of their studies across the UK), it again was revealed that feedback is the one category that students are most unhappy with. They often feel that provided feedback is not helpful.
What is the deal with effective feedback?
Effective feedback is feedback that can be and is used to improve learning outcomes and performance in the future. This description of effective feedback highlights two crucial components: Feedback provision and feedback use. One common misconception is that the provision of feedback alone leads to its use. While good feedback provision is certainly a step into the right direction (see this guest blog post on SMART Feedback) and may increase the likelihood of feedback use, it is not sufficient to encourage feedback use in the majority of students.
There are two problems that I would like to highlight (1):
(a) Lack of opportunities for immediate feedback use: Usually feedback is provided on the final submission of an assignment. Thus, students cannot use the feedback right away to improve the quality of their assignment – because, well, the assignment is done and dusted; a mark given and nothing you can do to change it. However, providing students with the opportunity to use feedback immediately would not only encourage them to do so, but also improve the quality of their work.
(b) Unclear relevance for future feedback use: It can be difficult for students to see the relevance of feedback provided for assignment A for a future assignment B. On the one hand, this can be due to feedback provision which focusses on too specific points, but, on the other hand, it may be due to the fact that students are not encouraged to use previously provided feedback to inform future assignments.
Thus, could teachers or lecturers create opportunities for immediate and future feedback use when designing their assignments? Yes, by systematically incorporating formative feedback. When designing assignments make sure that (a) students are provided with formative feedback in a first step before they complete the assignment, (b) students revisit previous feedback to accomplish future assignments, and (c) previous feedback use is a requirement for future feedback provision.
Overcoming low feedback use: Two-stage feedback
One idea I recently came up with and that I will be piloting with my students this year is a two-stage feedback approach that is manageable time-wise for teachers and lecturers. Before describing how it works, I need to provide a bit of context.
In the years that I have been teaching at university (since 2007), I have made the observation that one thing students struggle with is to plan, organize, and structure their assignments before diving into the writing phase. Essentially, very few students – in my experience – create an outline of how they plan to structure their essay or report prior to writing it. However, this planning phase is quite important because it reduces the processing load of the task by breaking it down to concrete bits and making an assignment more manageable. In addition, from reading a student’s outline, lecturers and teachers can often detect misconceptions students may have and tackle them right away. But there is more, assignments that follow a clear structure are easier and faster to mark than assignments that are written incoherently. Thus, an indirect benefit of receiving final assignments that are more structured is that it will probably cut down marking time in the long run. So, how to accomplish this? This takes us back to two-stage feedback.
At Stage 1, students only submit their outline of their assignment. The outline should show the intended structure for the assignment including the main references to be used, a brief description of arguments, and highlight transitions between arguments and sections. The outline should conclude with a focus of improvement section where students address previous feedback and state what they plan to work on for the current assignment. Students receive quick formative feedback on their outlines. This can be done in a variety of ways: teachers/lecturers could provide feedback to individual students or they could provide whole-class feedback using example outlines. Once students are familiar with two-stage feedback, formative feedback from peers could be incorporated at Stage 1.
At Stage 2, students submit their final assignment version which is marked and feedback is provided. In their feedback, teachers/lecturers should provide a focus of improvement section with up to maximal three concrete points they suggest the student to work on for future assignments. Feedback at Stage 2 should be more forward-oriented – essentially, it should follow a feedforward approach (2). One misconception that teachers/lecturers – including myself – have (probably unintentionally) adopted is that they write feedback to justify the grade. However, this is not the primary function of feedback. Feedback is there to help students improve their skills and performance in the future. Thus, I think final feedback on an assignment should be future-oriented and the emphasis should be on its quality, not quantity.
Expectations for two-stage feedback
- Students are encouraged to use the provided formative feedback right away to work on the present assignment. It will make the assignment more digestible for them and increase their happiness (the latter point is based on observations that I made after providing students feedback on their outline; they felt more secure – adopting an “I can do this” attitude).
- Consequently, the final write-up promises to be more coherent and structured than without prior formative feedback, which will make marking and final feedback more pleasant and faster.
- Focusing on an area of improvement for an assignment gives the assignment an additional meaning to students and offers concrete points to work on.
- Making students look back at previous feedback to inform their current assignment lets them make connections between different assignments and highlights the importance of constant improvement. In fact, this introduces spaced practice in a new way for them.
- Two-stage feedback creates a culture of revision and continuous improvement. The first draft will usually not be the best version of the assignment and that is OK. Realizing this and encouraging a culture of revising the work is good as it will help them to deal better with feedback in the future and potentially decrease the pressure.
- Spill-over effects to other tasks are to be expected. Student may start noticing that creating an outline can be helpful for a wide range of tasks at university/school. It can help them structure their answer to an exam question or wrap their heads around a presentation. Thus, implementing this structured approach generally promises to have positive spill-over effects in the long run.
- Two-stage feedback can be faded out in a way that encourages self-regulated learning. Formative feedback at Stage 1 could be instructor-led in the beginning, but then migrate to peer-led, and finally conclude with self-led feedback.
- Last, but not least: This feedback approach clearly shifts part of the responsibility for its effectiveness to the students. Student assume responsibility to use provided feedback on their outline to complete their present assignment and they are responsible to integrate previous feedback into the focus of improvement section of their future outlines in order to receive formative feedback. Thus, effective feedback becomes a collaboration between lecturers/teachers and students.
Call for feedback and discussion
If you have already adopted such a two-stage feedback approach in your classroom or intend to do so, please feed back to me (so meta). Would love to hear about your experiences, plans, and approaches with two-stage feedback or any other ideas you came up with to make feedback more effective.
(1) Winstone, N. E., Nash, R. A., Rowntree, J., & Parker, M. (2017). ‘It’d be useful, but I wouldn’t use it’: Barriers to university students’ feedback seeking and recipience. Studies in Higher Education, 42, 2026-2041.
(2) Li, J., & De Luca, R. (2014). Review of assessment feedback. Studies in Higher Education, 39, 378-393.