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Developing learner-focused feedback practices

04 Aug 2020 | Professor David Carless Following the recent publication of Patrick Baughan’s edited collection 'On Your Marks: learner-focused feedback practices and feedback literacy', David Carless, Professor of Educational Assessment at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, and a Principal Fellow of Advance HE, offers some thoughts on how shared responsibilities between educators and students might offer prospects for positive feedback impacts

The feedback dilemma

Feedback seems to be a troublesome topic. Students complain that they don’t get enough of it and it isn’t very useful. Educators bemoan the time they spend on marking and don’t feel students make good use of the feedback that is provided. What is worse is that the problem isn’t going away, and more feedback or faster turnaround times don’t seem to help.

Teacher transmission forms of feedback informing students about the strengths and weaknesses of their work are rarely effective. Students struggle to make sense of key messages, and if the grade is already awarded they generally see no incentive in engaging further. Large classes and limited resources compound the challenges of teacher-centred feedback processes. There is little value of educators investing a lot of time in marking student work, unless students have opportunities to act on feedback information. This implies a need for new ways of thinking in which learners and educators work together in enacting learner-focused feedback practices. 

Partnerships and feedback literacy as ways forward

Effective feedback processes need to involve partnership and shared responsibilities between students and educators. Feedback cannot be seen as something that is done to students but some form of reciprocal process. Educators need to design feedback processes in ways which encourage student uptake of feedback information, and learners need to make the most of opportunities to use feedback. These partnerships of shared responsibility are underpinned by learner-focused feedback practices. In this way of thinking, feedback is a fluid and interactive process in which learners make sense of a variety of inputs and use them for enhancement purposes.

For students to engage productively in these kinds of shared responsibilities, they need a set of skills to make the most of feedback opportunities. These have been referred to as student feedback literacy, the understandings, capacities and dispositions needed to generate feedback impacts. For those students who invest the effort, higher grades and lifelong learning capacities will accrue. A role of educators is to sell these learning gains to students and design opportunities for them to gain the confidence that engaging with feedback carries significant benefits. Students need to experience successful feedback processes.

Learner-focused feedback practices and impact

Patrick Baughan has put together a useful collection of articles offering additional impetus to the design of learner-focused feedback practices. The papers emanate from an Advance HE symposium held on October 24, 2019 or were invited after the event. The main goal of the collection is to showcase learner-focused feedback practices that make an impact on student learning. Impact is an important consideration because the proof of the feedback pudding lies in its impact. Feedback information about performance needs to have impact on future learner capacities and actions.

The chapters of the book exemplify various ways in which feedback impacts can accrue. These include designing assessment sequences to encourage, or even compel, student action in response to feedback. The creation of course climates where feedback is given, received and acted upon. The use of peer feedback to encourage students to take active roles in judging quality, and comparing the work of others with their own. The carefully timed use of exemplars to inform student work-in-progress and illustrate what quality products look like. Pedagogically well-informed use of technology to encourage timely interaction and revision of work over time.

Challenges and teacher feedback literacy

The sharing of promising ideas is a useful way of advancing our practice, but the devil is always in the detail. Good ideas always need some adaptation to the messy realities of disciplinary or institutional norms and procedures. This is one of the reasons why educators need to develop their own feedback literacy to complement learners’ capacities to involve themselves productively in feedback processes.

The emerging concept of teacher feedback literacy represents educators’ capacities in designing feedback processes, being sensitive to the interpersonal side of feedback exchanges and managing workload practicalities. When teachers have well-developed skills in organizing feedback processes, they are better prepared to motivate and coach students to take advantage of feedback opportunities. Modelling their own experiences of receiving, processing and using feedback is also an important part of teachers’ strategies.

Future developments

A key theme in the collection is that feedback is a reciprocal process in which learners and educators work together to improve learning. For comments to become impactful feedback, students need opportunities to act on them. Further development of the field relies on the interplay between teacher and student feedback literacy: the capacities to engineer and take advantage of feedback possibilities. The spirit of the collection invites more sharing of promising practices. In the context of current challenges related to COVID-19, what are practical ways of managing learner-focused online feedback practices so that they have an impact on students without being excessively workload-intensive for educators?

The full report is available for Advance HE members: On Your Marks: Learner-focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacy

David Carless is Professor of Educational Assessment at the Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong, and a Principal Fellow of Advance HE. He has pioneered the concept of feedback literacy to contribute to the development of impactful feedback processes. His most recent co-authored book, Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach, written with Naomi Winstone was published by Routledge in July 2019. Further details of his work are on his website: https://davidcarless.edu.hku.hk/

In August, Advance HE will be hosting a special webinar for members to mark the launch of the publication at which a number of authors will talk through their work. Please watch out for details.

Patrich Baughan is organising a further symposium on assessment and feedback, to be held online on 28 October 2020, with the theme Assessment and feedback in the pandemic era: a time for learning and inclusion. The call for papers is now open and, once again, there will be a linked publication which presenters can submit papers to.

We are also currently recruiting institutions to take part in an Assessment in Law Collaborative Project. This project will provide an opportunity for leaders and educators in Law to collaborate and drive forward innovation in assessment during a time of additional challenge.

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