Reframing feedback as a valuable learning tool

How to help students appreciate feedback as a useful aid to learning so that they engage with it in a productive way

Joseph Tinsley's avatar
28 Mar 2023
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Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University 

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Engagement with feedback is one of the biggest influences on student success in higher education. However, teachers and students often have different understandings of feedback processes. Understanding feedback in a broader sense as a learning practice can help improve students’ appreciation of feedback and their engagement with it. 

Reconceptualise feedback

The first step is to reconceptualise feedback as a valuable learning process in its own right. Through giving and receiving feedback, students develop greater capacity for reflection and improvement.

Teachers can help students understand feedback as a dialogue in which they have agency to make decisions about their work. One effective method is the use of cover sheets. A simple way to use these is for students to indicate what they did well and what they found challenging when completing a piece of work. As students become more familiar with the process, they can use cover sheets to indicate the areas of their work on which they would like to receive feedback. For assignments with multiple drafts, students can also use the cover sheets to give evidence and justify the improvements they made on a previous draft. Students can also be asked to write rebuttals in which they accept or reject feedback and provide their reasons for doing so.

Feedback processes can be linked to future employment and research contexts. In most workplaces, employees receive feedback on their performance. In research contexts, researchers receive feedback from reviewers to help improve work for publication. Ask students to research the feedback practices in their future industries. For example, graphic design students researched the design crit sessions used to give feedback in advertising and design agencies.

Develop students’ capacity for judgement

Students need to be aware of the criteria used to evaluate their work. This includes the explicit criteria in a marking rubric or the more tacit norms involved in assessment and feedback. Students become more feedback-literate by understanding the language of marking criteria and by having opportunities to apply such criteria to their own work.

It is helpful to use exemplars or model assignments in combination with a marking rubric. Students practise using the marking rubric with a range of examples to understand how the criteria are met. This helps students develop self-evaluation skills because they are able to compare the models to their own work.

To emphasise the developmental nature of feedback, I explored ways of storing and returning to feedback with students. Educational technologies can make this process easier. For example, use the virtual learning environment (VLE) to help students create an e-portfolio of the feedback they have given and received over the course of the semester. At the end of the module, design reflective activities in class for students to evaluate and measure their progress in writing and responding to feedback.

Help students manage emotional responses

Receiving feedback is a personal and potentially emotional process. If students react badly to feedback, it can influence their desire to make improvements to their work or receive feedback in future.

Teachers can help by discussing their own experiences of receiving feedback. For example, I talk about the feedback I receive from teaching observations and from student module evaluations. I explain how the feedback makes me feel and how I make use of it. This approach helps normalise the process of receiving feedback.

Educational technologies can be used to deliver feedback in a less immediate and anonymised way. For example, most VLEs can anonymise the peer feedback process. My students have been receptive to video feedback. Even when the video feedback contained the same content as written feedback, students felt that video feedback was easier to understand and provoked less of an emotional reaction.

Guide students to take action

It is also important to give students strategies for further action and the confidence to feel that they are capable of doing so. Ask students to state which areas they want to improve in their next piece of work and the strategies they will use to do it. For example, if a student receives feedback about a lack of sources, part of their action plan could be to spend more time reviewing the literature on their next assignment.

In short, engaging students in the feedback process is challenging, and new strategies can take time to implement. However, reconceptualising feedback and encouraging cognitive and affective processing helps students establish useful and sustainable feedback habits for their future studies and beyond.

Joseph Tinsley is an educational developer with the Educational Development Unit at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

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