Teaching intelligence: how to provide effective feedback

Anna McKie speaks to three experts about giving feedback that enhances student learning − and some of the most common pitfalls along the way

May 25, 2021
Students come together to hear the judgement of the coaches, illustrating giving effective feedback
Source: Getty

Feedback is accepted as an integral part of the learning process in higher education, but it often proves difficult to get right.

For example, in the UK, the Higher Education Policy Institute’s annual student academic experience survey shows that most years only about 50 per cent of students say they received useful feedback.   

For Kelly Matthews, associate professor of higher education at the University of Queensland, good feedback “does more than explain or defend a grade”.

“It’s an ongoing process linked to good assessment design that empowers students to enhance their learning,” she told Times Higher Education. “You know that feedback is working when students say: ‘I understand the steps I can take to do better, and I trust that my teachers and peers are here to support my learning in this class.’”

To do this, university educators and leaders must see students as partners in assessment, Dr Matthews argued. But doing so will involve “shifting mindsets and shifting practices”.

Academic teachers must ensure that they make plans around feedback with the same rigour as they would apply to creating course content or assessment, she said. “By always connecting feedback and assessment, it is easier for teachers and students to engage differently with learning and assessment.”

According to Dr Matthews, planning should start with teachers asking themselves: how will my students demonstrate their learning? And how will students take action to enhance learning using feedback opportunities in the class?

She added that feedback must not create dependence on teachers, lest university educators “risk falling into the trap of creating learner dependence through their feedback and assessment practices”.

“A higher education that promotes autonomy, creative and critical thinking, and independent learning empowers students to answer these questions accurately for themselves.”

One means to such an end is sharing the feedback responsibility with students, she said. This can be done by letting students self-assess their own work, or perhaps give pre-submission feedback to each other and then report in their assessment tasks how they improved their assignments following that feedback. University teachers should also encourage students to ask frequent questions about criteria, grading and standards, she added.

Disciplines differ, so feedback and assessment practices will, too, she pointed out. However, “the aim is the same: how do our feedback and assessment practices promote student autonomy, independence and critical judgement about their own learning?”

Therese Hopfenbeck, professor of educational assessment at the University of Oxford, agreed that there is “no one answer” to providing the best feedback. “Context matters,” she said. For example, you should consider how many students each teacher has responsibility for when designing the type of feedback they will give.

The most important thing is that students need feedback they can act upon, so they need it in a language they can understand. “This might seem simple, but it can be so challenging. Research has shown again and again that across all levels of education, teachers are spending a lot of time providing feedback that students don’t understand,” she said.

This could be because of the language used: it could be too complicated or too vague. But for feedback to be effective, it must be very specific, according to Professor Hopfenbeck. “Saying: ‘Your essay has no structure’ is not enough. You have to explain to them that they need to build their arguments, what they need in their paragraphs,” she said.  

Professor Hopfenbeck, who is also director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, agreed that feedback had to be integrated alongside planning what will be taught and how it will be assessed. She added that it was important for teachers to be open and transparent about the criteria students will be graded on and that feedback must relate to that.

It also needs to be consistent throughout the course. And it must be timely. “We know from research that if you can provide feedback very early on in the process, students can learn from it, but if they submit an essay and get the feedback six weeks later, they’ve almost left that learning process,” she said.

However, university systems, in which teachers often have hundreds of essays to mark, can make this a challenge, she added.

David Carless, professor of educational assessment at the University of Hong Kong, agreed that feedback was of limited value at the very end of a course. “Feedback processes are often most useful when insights from the first assessment task of a course can be applied to a subsequent assessment task,” he explained.

Therefore, any teacher commentary at the end, after a final grade is awarded, is limited in its usefulness. It would be more useful if this kind of feedback were reduced, in favour of increased guidance within the course, he added.

For Professor Carless, teachers should be allowed to design learning and assessment sequences where students can generate peer feedback and produce their own insights into the quality of their work in progress.

“If universities are to fulfil their lifelong-learning aspirations, students rather than teachers should be primary agents in feedback processes,” he said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: How to avoid feedback pitfalls

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