Teaching intelligence: how to improve feedback conversations

Staff must address power differential and ensure feedback is a two-way dialogue, or risk alienating students, writes Anne Wilson 

October 10, 2019
Source: Alamy

Imagine you’re meeting a student to discuss your written feedback on their essay. They tell you they didn’t understand some of your comments and wonder why they didn’t get a higher grade.

Eager to help, you go through your comments one by one, explaining what you meant, making suggestions, giving examples. The student is grateful, giving you the impression that they understand and are going away enlightened. But has the student actually learned anything from this interaction? Can they apply new knowledge and do better on their next assignment?

Although most lecturers today embrace the constructivist view of learning – that learning must be active to be effective – many revert to the “student as empty vessel” model when giving feedback. This is partly due to time pressure, but it can also derive from reluctance to acknowledge the twin elephants in the room: emotion and power.

Feedback can arouse strong feelings in both students and academics, feelings that are often unexpressed, not least because of the power differential between lecturer and learner. In most disciplines, emotions are considered anathema to academic learning, so even acknowledging the role of emotions in feedback conversations requires a shift in thinking. Yet understanding how feelings can facilitate or inhibit learning may be key to unlocking new ways of approaching feedback conversations. 

The Royal Literary Fund (RLF) fellows, who are professional writers placed in higher education institutions to offer writing support to all students, witness first-hand the emotions around feedback and their impact on learning. Knowing that our service is confidential, students express their feelings freely. We find that even PhD students often baulk at the idea of feedback as a two-way process.

In 2017, when I was RLF fellow at Brunel University London, I collaborated on a research project with the occupational therapy department, funded by Teach Brunel and the RLF, looking at what kind of feedback helps students to improve their academic writing. In separate focus groups, students and staff role-played feedback conversations where the “academic” did all the talking and the student was mostly passive. The literature on feedback emphasises that dialogue enhances understanding.

For me, to improve our feedback conversations the first step is to acknowledge strong feelings and recognise the power imbalance between students and staff. Give students permission to be upset, for example by starting with, “I wonder how you felt when you read my feedback?”

Feedback meetings are not therapy sessions, but validating the student’s feelings (such as “it’s understandable to feel that way when you’ve worked so hard”) and jointly exploring what went wrong can defuse a charged situation. It’s a subtle shift in tone from “let me tell you” to “let’s puzzle it out together”.

Ask the student about the comments they say they didn’t understand. Can they guess what you meant? How do they think they can achieve a better grade?

The meeting is also a chance for you to discover which comments students find useful – and why. Many students complain that they can’t apply feedback to the next assignment because it’s, say, a lab report, rather than an essay. Help the student identify ways to do better in the next assignment, even if you’re not the one teaching or marking it.

Getting students to do some of the heavy lifting is easier if there are other measures in place to foster a culture of shared responsibility, according to a paper on assessment feedback published in Frontiers in Psychology

Ahead of a face-to-face meeting, some academics ask students to be specific about which aspects of the feedback they wish to discuss. Some departments release the feedback before the grade and get students to predict their own mark using the rubric.

At the University of Sussex, Ruth Bowles and Simon Williams have developed a structured session to help students reflect on their feedback, including how they feel about it. Ideas like this can be invaluable in supporting students to take a more active role.

In a true dialogue, we share responsibility for two-way communication, but there is slightly more onus on the person with power. If you’re doing all the talking, the student is listening but not actively learning. Expect more. Ask questions. Leave more space and potentially awkward encounters might blossom into rewarding learning experiences for both parties in the feedback loop: you and your students.

Anne Wilson is a Royal Literary Fund consultant fellow who runs writing workshops and retreats for postgraduates and staff.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Dialogue is key to effective feedback

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