Giving feedback – is it time to take advice from the professionals?

By Dr Cloda Jenkins, Senior Teaching Fellow and Co-Founder CTaLE[1]

Year after year there are discussions about why students are dissatisfied with feedback and how we can make improvements. We are inclined in discussions to focus in on what the problems might be, talking theoretically about what good feedback is, but rarely get to the stage of considering how to make changes to implement good feedback. Is it time for the conversations about feedback to change?

In most organisations, employers and employees are provided with training on how to give and receive feedback at different junctures in their careers. The advice may vary but over time a number of core principles have stuck with me that are, I think, as relevant to the provision of feedback in student assessment as they are to workplace relationships.

  1. Feedback should be timely: for most students this means that the feedback should be received not too long after they have done the work and in time for it to inform inter-related learning in the classroom and in other assignments. This can happen if we remember that feedback takes many different forms. A discussion in lecture or tutorial straight after an assignment has been submitted can be valid feedback as much as a mark and comments on a particular sheet of paper. So long as the feedback provided is timely and relevant.
  2. Feedback should be relevant to the recipient: the issue here is making the student see why the feedback matters and why they should reflect on it. For most students, no matter what ambitions we have for a love of learning, this boils down to making a link between the feedback and assessment in the course.
  3. Feedback should be specific and helpful: as part of any feedback discussion there will be development points for the receiver to work on. The provider of the feedback should not only raise the issues but also make suggestions of how to make improvements. This can be done within the initial feedback and/or as an ongoing exercise when the receiver has had time to reflect.
  4. Use the praise sandwich: the idea here is that it is easier to give feedback, and to receive it, if there is a mix of praise and suggestions of where to improve. The sandwich suggests that you lead with the good points and end with the good points, making the receiver of the feedback feel better about themselves when they ponder the development points.
  5. Feedback needs to be consistent across cohorts: anybody managing a team will tell you that people talk to each other and taking a different approach to feedback, or a different tone in feedback, with one worker relative to another will be discussed and undermine the feedback and wider confidence in the team lead. This applies equally with students, where it is important that they see that the quality (value) of feedback is consistent with what others get in a course, and of course that they see it as being fair. In work, providing feedback to a whole team alongside individual feedback can reinforce consistency of message. Something similar could be done in the classroom alongside individual feedback.
  6. 360 degree feedback improves confidence in feedback: students are more likely to take feedback seriously, and reflect on it, if they see that the party giving the feedback understands the value of feedback and actively shows that they reflect on and respond to feedback that they receive. As teachers, the best way to do this is by showing that we are willing to take feedback and being open with students about how we respond to the feedback they give. Openness and trust can help with the effectiveness of teacher feedback on student work and student feedback on lecturer work.

So there are already principles, no doubt many more than these, on what good feedback involves. Rather than re-inventing the wheel on this in teaching and learning settings should we not do what we can to borrow and adapt professional feedback criteria and instead focus our conversations on the much harder bit? How do we implement these criteria when we have large cohorts of students, teachers with little experience providing feedback and the limitations of time? There are potential answers out there including providing group feedback to groups in lecture, designing subject-specific bespoke training on feedback to all new and not so new teachers and including sufficient time in teaching load to prioritise feedback. These are the type of areas where further conversation would be valuable.

[1] The views in this blog are the author’s own. They are not necessarily the views of any organisations that she is affiliated with including UCL, UCL Department of Economics and the UCL Centre for Teaching and Learning Economics.