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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

There are social conventions, unwritten rules, around feedback in a formal education setting. Most students associate feedback as coming from the voice of authority in the form of red marks on a written script! It is important to redefine feedback for university and professional learners.

In this short overview video (3'30") Simon outlines four 'contractual' arrangements all faculty should establish at the outset of their course or module with respect to feedback for learning.

These are
1) ensuring that students know WHERE feedback is coming from
2) WHEN to expect feedback
3) WHAT you mean by feedback
4) WHAT to DO with the feedback when it's received.

  1. Feedback is undoubtedly expected from the tutor or instructor but there are numerous feedback channels available to students if only they are conscious of them. These include feedback from their peers but most important from self-assessment and learning activities designed in class.
  2. Knowing where feedback is coming from as part of the learning process relieves the pressure on the tutor and in effect makes feedback a constant 'loop', knowing what to look out for and possibly having students document the feedback they receive supports their metacognitive development.
  3. Being clear with students as to what you regard as feedback is an effective way of ensuring that students take ownership of their own learning. My own personal definition is extremely broad, from the feedback one receives in terms of follow-up comments for anything shared in an online environment to the nods and vocal agreement shared in class to things you say. These are all feedback. Knowing that also encourages participation!
  4. Suggesting to students what they do with feedback will depend a little bit on the nature of the course and the formal assessment processes. Students naturally enough don't do things for the sake of it so it has to be of discernable benefit to them. If there is some form of portfolio based coursework assessment you could ask for an annotated 'diary' on feedback received through the course. If its a course with strong professional interpersonal outcomes (like nursing or teaching for example) you might ask students to identify their favourite and least favourite piece of feedback they experienced during the course, with a commentary on how it affected their subsequent actions.

What's important is to recognise that there are social conventions around feedback in a formal education setting, normally associated with red marks on a written script! It is important to redefine feedback for university and professional learners.

Simon Paul Atkinson (PFHEA)
SIJEN: Consultancy for International Higher Education

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