Quality feedback is clearly recognised as one of the most powerful tools in education for the improvement of learning (1, 2). There is also a relationship between feedback and aspects of student wellbeing. Students often have an emotional response to feedback, which can be positive and enhancing or negative and disruptive (3) and can influence students’ willingness to engage with and learn from the feedback received (4). Feedback can enhance positive psychological states such as motivation, self-efficacy and determination or reduce self-belief, create anxiety and potentially lead to a state of ‘learned helplessness,’ (5-8).
As Molloy and Boud (7) identify, a key element in conceptualising the role of feedback is the fact that it is received by a thinking, feeling, acting and reacting person (a student). How feedback is framed, directed and received will have an impact on a students’ thoughts and feelings, which will, in turn, leading to actions that may or may not be helpful (3, 9). Therefore, feedback needs to be designed with this in mind and to incorporate the learner in a process of self-evaluation. This is more likely to be achieved within a learning focussed curriculum, in which students clearly understand the learning outcomes (goals) they are expected to achieve (10). Within a learning focussed curriculum, students are less likely to see feedback as a judgement on them and rather to focus upon its role in the ongoing process of learning (11). If feedback is to lead to improvements in student learning, the relationship between feedback, wellbeing and future learning behaviours must be understood.
Specific feedback that provides students with a clear route to improvement, that they can then visualise and act upon, is beneficial for both learning and wellbeing. Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) key work on feedback identifies three key questions on which feedback should focus.
- Where am I going? (What knowledge, understanding or skills is the student trying to develop?)
- How am I going? (What progress has the student made towards this?)
- Where to next? (What specifically and practically can the student do now to increase this knowledge, understanding or skill?) (12)
By providing students with clear steps, that they can take to improve, they are more likely to act on feedback and to believe it will lead to further growth and better future learning, thus bolstering self-efficacy. By contrast, feedback that is either simply critical or provides nebulous praise can undermine both motivation and helpful future action (5-7, 13).
For feedback to successfully lead to improvements in learning, students must recognise feedback when it is received, understand its importance, value it for their development and know how to both interpret and apply it in future learning (14). This last requirement can be particularly challenging in a modular structure, where feedback is received on a final piece of work, if the student does not know how to apply it to learning in a completely different module. Feedback must therefore form part of curriculum design, supporting students to link content and learning across modules, rather than existing a separate, episodic acts (7).
Some work has, therefore, focussed on training students to understand, recognise, value, and work with feedback productively. This includes helping students recognise, accept and regulate their own emotional responses to feedback and to work with meta-cognitive elements of their learning (15, 16). If this has occurred successfully, students will then have been prepared for feedback that encourages them to reflect and follows Hattie and Timperley’s recommendations by focussing on:
- Task level (how well it has been performed).
- Process level (the process the student has undertaken and what a more effective process might be).
- Self-regulation level (how students have self-managed and regulated their own learning behaviours and how this can be improved).
- Self-level (how students can draw on their learning to build self-concept and self-efficacy).
This can be deepened with metacognitive tasks that accompany feedback, such as requiring students to respond to feedback with action plans, before receiving their grade or providing feedback on their own work and progress.
This scaffolded approach to learning, can then help students develop both their competence and their sense of their own ability and growth, leading to increased self-efficacy and ability. Feedback can provide reassurance and a clear path for progress, supporting learning and wellbeing (6).
- Feedback is a powerful tool for supporting learning and wellbeing.
- Feedback can have negative impacts if it is vague, overly critical, is perceived by the student as an attack or judgement of them and/or doesn’t provide a clear way forward towards further improvement.
- Students may need support to be able to understand, recognise, value, and work with feedback productively. This includes helping students recognise, accept and regulate their own emotional responses to feedback.
- Feedback is most effective if it focusses on the why of the task and the process the student has utilised.
- Place a focus on learning throughout each module and the overall programme, to create a better platform for feedback.
- Provide specific training within the curriculum to support students to utilise feedback – e.g., by providing worked examples of feedback or using tutorials focussed on interpreting feedback students have received and using it to build an action plan.
- Focus feedback on specific steps students can take to improve future learning.
- Set accompanying meta-cognitive tasks, such as asking students to respond to your feedback with analysis and their own action plan.
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