There is a wealth of literature that describes the purposes of providing feedback as part of the learning process in higher and professional education. I’m going to distil this voluminous research and scholarship into four key purposes.
Firstly, feedback for student learning is about increasing capacity for future actions. Indicating to the student how a piece of work, in-class contribution or whatever form of evidence, is provided by the students could be made better next time is about increasing their capacity. It’s human nature to think, “ok, well that’s task is completed, I passed, let's just move on”, but understanding how to do better, even in an imaginary ‘next time’, builds capacity.
This relates to the second purpose, developing self-awareness or metacognition in the student. Giving students the sense that even if there isn’t going to be another opportunity to provide evidence of learning in the same way again, there will be similar activities, tests, trails or exams and what they learn from the current feedback can be transferred into this new context.
Which leads us on to the third purpose of feedback, of developing academic skills. Poorly designed assessment might just be testing content knowledge, and it's very hard to provide meaningful feedback on such assessment. If on the other hand your assessment is well constructed, against distinct learning outcomes and using a meaningful marking rubric, then the feedback students receive should also be developing the academic abilities and skills beyond what they can recall.
The fourth and final purpose for providing feedback for student learning is to enhance the self-confidence and well-being of the student. Whether your feedback is providing confirmation of progress and success on the part of the student or providing supportive corrective guidance to a struggling student, the purpose remains the same, to bolster a positive attitude to learning, to the subject, to the practices associated with the discipline.
If you are struggling to meet these four core purposes in providing feedback to your students, you may want to think about reading a practical guidebook on providing feedback, enrolling on a professional development programme or just get together with your colleagues, and go through a course redesign or re-evaluation. You could invite a consultant to review your practices. You may find that your assessments and your in-class learning and teaching activities could be better designed to make providing meaningful feedback easier for you, and more useful for your students.
Simon Paul Atkinson
Consultancy for International Higher Education