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On Feedback

Well, this week for me has been all about feedback. I’m in the fortunate position that I’ve been able to both give and receive feedback this week – this can be extremely difficult though ultimately invaluable. The benefits of timely and specific feedback are well documented.  According to Educational researcher John Hattie, feedback is in the top 5-10 most influential of teaching strategies as they relate to achievement.  Despite this, feedback is fraught with a number of issues/concerns/criticisms/complaints both from those giving the feedback and from those receiving it. Some of the most common are students not taking feedback on board; instructors being overly critical/saying something needs improving but not providing a means for improvement; timeliness (“Why didn’t you tell me this before I started??”); the amount of time it takes to write/provide feedback etc Given these criticisms, knowing how to both give and receive feedback in a way that is constructive and productive becomes even more crucial!

I’m about to go on a rant so, if you don’t want to read it. Here’s a summary of my own opinions about both giving and receiving feedback:

Receiving Feedback:

  • Receive feedback graciously: Often when we’re receiving feedback we don’t necessarily agree with, we tend to get agitated and defensive.   Try to listen to the feedback rather than spending the entire time feeling annoyed, frustrated, or angry. If you feel yourself getting this way, focus on what is being said and not how it is being said.
  • Feedback will make you better: Well, ideally it should sharpen your ideas, writing, thinking or assessment! Try to be thankful when you receive feedback – someone has spent time and energy thinking about how you could improve your work.
  • Feedback is not personal: This is often very difficult. When we receive negative feedback, it’s exceptionally difficult not to take it personally. The feedback you receive is not a reflection on you, your worth, your value as a person etc

Giving Feedback:

  • Include feedback about what was done well as well as what could be improved
  • Be specific about how areas of weakness could be improved upon
  • Allow opportunities for your student to ask you questions and for clarity in regards to your feedback

Ok – big rant about feedback begins here! Feel free to stop reading at this point!

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006, p. 205) propose 7 principles of good feedback practice which I think serve as a good starting point.

1. Clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards): This is often easier to do in undergraduate study when there are criteria sheets; markers have often seen/assessed the same assessment task previous which they can use to guide their judgements. One of the best ways I have found to do this is to provide students with an example of the task deconstructed according to the criteria/task requirements. One of the easiest ways to do this is with a three-column deconstruction (which I first found out about in Lindsay Williams’ English Teaching Survival Manual).

Often with postgraduate research, this can be a lot more difficult as many of the expectations are tacit/nobody has ever done the research you’re doing so clarifying what’s actually required can often feel like finding your way in the dark. I heard a great talk on this by Jonathan Bader – if you ever get to hear him speak – I would highly recommend it!

2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning:  I wrote about the important of reflection in my last post. I think there are a number of really excellent ways to development reflection. One which I have been quite interested in is the ideas of ‘comments not grades’ which I first came upon is a great 2 part documentary called ‘The Classroom Experiment’. The premise is that we’ve become so preoccupied with grades that we don’t take note of the comments we get. In the experiement, the teachers return students’ work without grades but rather only with comments for improvement; leaving the students none the wiser as to how they’d performed much to the frustration of the students. I noticed this frustration in myself this week when I received feedback and all I wanted to say was, “Ok, fair enough, but is this work passable?” We need to move from a preoccupation with results to a preoccupation with learning.

3. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning: What I find most interesting about this principle is that it talks about providing information about learning rather than assessment. This point might be best paraphrased by simply saying – tell students how to improve and not just what they did or did not do well!

4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning: The key here is dialogue! I also think this needs to be reciprocal – students should provide feedback to teachers about how teachers can improve as well as teachers providing feedback to students about their learning.  The importance of peer assessment here should not be underestimated! I often suggest my students read one anothers’ work – this can be better scaffolded by providing a peer assessment checklist. Or, doing it online!

5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem: Now, I’m a bit of a sensitive one so, for me, this is extremely important! In saying that, last week I showed a colleague a student’s draft (I wanted her feedback on my feedback!) and she asked me if I had anything nice to say about the student’s work. In my zeal to provide the student with suggestions about the ways they could improve, I had neglected to provide any positive reinforcement. The student would likely have had a terrible impression of me. Often we forget that students have put hours (sometimes years!) of work into their assignments and, despite our best intentions, providing only ‘constructive criticism’ can be really heartbreaking and leave a student feeling like deflated, distraughtdejected, or depressed.

6. Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance: This is, I feel, the most problematic of the principles. Many of the students I see set desired goals that are almost entirely out of their control (for example, attempting to get 7s for all assessment items). We speak a lot about making quantifiable, achievable and realistic goals. For example, I will work on my assignment for 1 hour today. Aside from goal setting, teachers can help to close this gap by providing specific draft feedback; modelling and scaffolding. However, as I say, I feel that this principle needs to be applied with discernment – ensuring desired performance goals are achievable!

7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to shape the teaching:  I mentioned this earlier – feedback on our own teaching is crucial. I used to gain this feedback at the start of the year, when I’d ask students to write me letters telling me about themselves and describing the features of effective and ineffective teachers. At the end of the year I’d have the students (anonymously) tell me what they felt my strengths and weaknesses were as a teacher – they were not shy in telling me!

References:

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007).  The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Nicol, D. J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.