Student feedback should change forever after Covid-19

Switching towards peer-to-peer assessment makes sense for distance learning but a longer-term transformation would benefit students, says David Carless

April 20, 2020
Online learning
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Providing swift and useful feedback to students was a major challenge for academics long before Covid-19 upended higher education across the world.

But the pivot to online teaching and assessment in recent months has underlined just how difficult this vital, but time-consuming, task has become. So is it time to reconsider the paradigm of teacher-student feedback altogether in these strange times of enforced distance learning?

Students may sometimes profess a fondness for a familiar feedback model in which teachers offer a detailed account of where students went wrong or what they need to do better. But unless the teacher input is well timed, it rarely makes a difference to those all-important student grades. As the old story goes, telling a feeble comedian to be funnier probably doesn’t help much.

Instead, students need to be active participants in feedback, rather than feel it is something imposed on them by teachers. It should open up interaction or dialogue. And it needs to be offered in good faith with the recipient’s best interests at heart.

In this respect, switching to peer feedback may be a useful strategy, particularly within today’s online learning environments.

But the devil is in the detail. Some students may resist with the natural counter: “Isn’t that the teacher’s job?” Teachers need to sell to students the benefits of online peer feedback.

Audio and video peer feedback can be immensely valuable. Not only does it allow students to compare their own work with their peers’ efforts, but it forces them to think critically. An analytical two- to three-minute commentary on their classmates’ work is a good option.

Assuming these interactions are conducted with respect and trust, they reduce some of the isolation that learners may be experiencing. This kind of social interaction often leads to increased student commitment to their studies.

When students compose and receive multiple peer reviews, then a sense of community is developed. But only if students engage whole-heartedly in the process. The more effort they put in, the more they are likely to gain.

The proof of the feedback pudding is in its use. For feedback to be worthwhile, learners need to take action. After composing and receiving online peer feedback, students must learn to revise their assignments and evaluate their own production more robustly. This kind of internal feedback, which students generate for themselves, is a vital part of learning independently.

Teachers can facilitate peer feedback through other types of technology, such as using GoogleDocs to enable collaborative writing. Learners can then receive timely feedback and take action while revising work in progress. VoiceThread is another tool that enables users to upload and comment on multimedia drafts, such as texts, videos or slides.

Teachers need to develop a sense of community within online learning environments. By showing care, enthusiasm and personal sensitivity, they can encourage feedback dialogues to flourish.

Of course, teachers critiquing students’ work will not disappear entirely. Through video feedback, teachers can establish a social presence and offer more nuance than in writing. They might also screencast the creation of visual commentary on a student’s work, showing in real time their feedback response.

Zoom is the current interactional tool of choice with webcam-enabled chats becoming the new norm. Will this continue even after the lockdown passes and face-to-face feedback then becomes a thing of the past?

Implicit in all of this is a greater willingness to explore how feedback functions and how staff and student know-how can be best deployed. Feedback is only effective when teachers and students work together in partnerships of shared responsibilities. Teachers design feedback opportunities and then students need to take action.

Social distancing will eventually pass, but Covid-19 may force us to rethink some of our most entrenched assessment and feedback practices. Students must become central to feedback and no longer just passive recipients of criticism or praise.

David Carless is professor of educational assessment at the University of Hong Kong.

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