Effective feedback – The power of three

What was the activity?

A review of our feedback practice dentified both a lack of consistency in the giving of feedback and varying student engagement with it. This inconsistency occurred within, between and across courses. Unevenness was a key factor with some examples of excellent practice but also plenty of poor practice too. Where students received what they considered to be poor feedback they either chose not to engage with it or felt that they could not.. 

Specifically, we identified:

  • lengthy in-text annotations that overwhelmed and disengaged students;
  • limited constructive alignment; 
  • a focus on teaching and assessing subject content and not skills;
  • insufficient focus on actionable “feedforward”.  

Assessments and feedback are, of course, important to both staff and students for measuring progress against learning outcomes (assessment of learning), but at Solent University we believe meaningful assessment and feedback – that is, practice which is engaging and draws out the best from students – are an essential part of the student learning journey (assessment for learning). In line with authors such as Henderson et al. (2019) and Winstone and Boud (2020), we believe that feedback is not just about justifying grades but meaningful feedback is developmental, formative and forward looking. Our starting point is the premise that augmented feedback has three core functions as follows. 

  • Build confidence and motivation
  • Correct errors
  • Instruct or inform 

(Schmidt and Wrisberg, 2008). 

It is well evidenced that effective feedback has a strong influence on student achievement in higher education (Winstone and Careless, 2020). However, numerous authors (including O’Donovan, 2020; Race 2020; and Morris, Perry and Wardle, 2021) have identified that unless students engage with and act on feedback it is of very little value. 

To enhance effectiveness of, and engagement with, feedback we developed an institution-wide assessment feedback template focused on the power of three. 

  • Three strengths to build confidence and motivation
  • Three limitations or areas for improvement to correct errors
  • Three actionable areas to instruct students how to do better in future assessments or employment.

To support the three-by-three template we created a list of ‘principles of good practice’ which were based on existing good practice, student feedback and relevant literature (for example Winstone et al., 2016; Voelkel et al., 2020; Race, 2020 and Winstone and Careless, 2020). We agreed on the following 17 principles:  

  1. Feedback is appreciative
  2. Feedback is detailed, clear, specific and actionable
  3. Feedback is honest and respectful
  4. In-text annotation is optional and should be used sparingly for major factual corrections
  5. There is alignment between module learning outcomes, assessment criteria, the marking rubric and the feedback
  6. There is consistency between the grade and the comments, and the feedback justifies the mark 
  7. Where appropriate, feedback relates back to previous student work or goals
  8. Feedback relates comments to specific locations
  9. Feedback tells students ‘why’ they should change something
  10. Feedback identifies strengths in the work and offers positive reinforcement and encouragement
  11. Feedback identifies and offers constructive criticism of the weaknesses in the work
  12. Feedback includes feed forward that tells students how to improve in future assignments
  13. Feedback is an appropriate length
  14. Feedback suggests where the student could get further advice or help and, where appropriate, provides direct links to additional information and / or support
  15. When students are on the threshold of the next grade-mark classification, the feedback tells the student what they need to do to get over the next threshold
  16. Feedback offers a 1 to 1 follow up or opportunity for dialogue
  17. There is consistency in feedback within each module and between modules

How did it impact students?

The project is still very new; however, feedback on last year’s pilot project from staff, students and external examiners has been largely positive. The core elements of this feedback are that the new template has helped to give feedback greater clarity, consistency, and usefulness. Consequently, students have engaged more with it and instead of it being a by-product to their learning, has become a key element of their learning. 

This shift away from assessment of learning towards assessment for learning is pivotal in enhancing student engagement with their feedback, making it more dialogic and relating it directly to future assignments and employment over which they have control, rather than past performances that are no longer controllable. 

The courses that used the template saw an improvement in student satisfaction in module and course reviews. In pilot courses, student satisfaction for assessment and feedback improved by an average of 10.2 %. (NSS, 2021)

Any advice for others?

During the process of rolling this framework out across teaching teams, we are often asked four common questions.

Q1 – Will this slow down my marking?

One of the intentions of the feedback template was to help staff focus their efforts and be more efficient with their time. We intended staff to write fewer but better feedback points and encouraged staff to create a bank of statements that they could then personalise. However, we found that at first, instead of speeding up marking, it actually took longer. According to staff, this was because the template required a new way of writing feedback, which took a bit of time to get used to. Staff also noted that it does take a bit of time at the start to build up a bank of statements. However, their advice was to be patient. Once you get into it and build up your statement bank, the template does speed up the marking process.

Q2 – ‘Limitations / Areas for improvement’ and ‘next time’ seem very similar. How do they differ? 

The content may be similar, but they should be framed differently. ‘Limitations / Areas for improvement’ relate specifically to the submitted assignment. They will address specific weaknesses in the work. It is mainly ‘for your information’ because that moment has gone and unless the student has a resit, they can’t correct that assignment. This type of feedback will often start 

“In this assignment you should have… or could have…”. ‘Next time’ relates to something they can control in the future. For example: 

  • a resit if they have failed;
  • a future assignment or module where they will be doing similar things;
  • future employment.

This type of feedback will often start “Next time you should… or need to…”

Q3 – I prefer to provide video or audio feedback. How does this template work for different modes of feedback?

Using different modes of feedback is a great idea. But remember that students want consistency within a module. The mode can vary between modules as long as, regardless of mode, you still meet the essentials of good feedback and follow the three-by-three model.

Q4 – How do I write the three limitations in a positive and constructive style?

Feedback must be positive, but it must also be honest. If we just give positive feedback, students won’t be able to see their mistakes and won’t learn from them. That said, you don’t have to diminish the student or their work to point out where the work fell short. Here are some sentence starters that you could use to identify the weaknesses.

Do

  • When you… make sure you….
  • I think you need to… this will give you…
  • The piece would benefit from…
  • It was a shame that you did not provide evidence of…
  • You need to…

Check

  • You have done… but be careful you don’t…
  • You mention … you might like to review [or check] this a little more deeply.
  • You do…, it would be better if you did…
  • You could do with a bit more care and attention on…
  • You have… this would have been clearer if you had…
  • In…, be careful you don’t…
  • You need to think more carefully about…
  • You appear to have confused…
  • Revisit… and… 

Stretch

  • You could have done more on the…
  • You could have strengthened… with…
  • You could have spelled out more clearly…
  • You could have provided more evidence of impact of… 
  • You should have further developed…
  • It would have been good to see some more specific details of…
  • I would have liked to see much more emphasis on… Or evidence of …
  • …would have been stronger if…

Other contextual details

Language continues to be an issue and we are working on demystifying subject specific and pedagogic jargon in assessment briefs and ensure that the language of feedback is accessible. Our next focus is to look at the generic level descriptors and guidance for staff to ensure that comments are aligned with grade marks. We want to make sure that staff are supported with resources to help them find appropriate grade and level language. This is especially important for staff where English is not their first language and they might therefore have a growing vocabulary.

References

Henderson, M., Molloy E., Ajjawi, R. and Boud, D (2019) ‘Designing feedback for impact’, in Henderson, M., Ajjawi, R., Boud, D. and Molloy, E. (eds.) The Impact of Feedback in Higher Education. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 267-285.

Morris, R., T. Perry, and Wardle, L. (2021) Formative assessment and feedback for learning in higher education: A systematic review. Review of Education, 9(3), e3292. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3292

O’Donovan, B. (2020) ‘What makes feedback effective? Enhancing student learning from, and satisfaction with, assessment feedback’ in Baughan, P. (ed.) On your marks: Learner-focused feedback practices and feedback literacy. York: Advance HE. 

Race, P. (2020) The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching. London: Routledge.

Schmidt, R.A. and C. A. Wrisberg, 2008. Motor learning and performance: A situation-based learning approach. Champaign: Human Kinetics.

Voelkel, S., Varga‐Atkins, T. and Mello, L.V. (2020) Students tell us what good written feedback looks like. FEBS open bio, 10(5), pp.692-706.  https://doi.org/10.1002/2211-5463.12841

Winstone, N.E., Nash, R.A., Rowntree, J. and Menezes, R. (2016) ‘What do students want most from written feedback information? Distinguishing necessities from luxuries using a budgeting methodology’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(8), pp. 1237-1253. 10.1080/02602938.2015.1075956

Winstone, N. and Carless, D. (2020) Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. Oxon: Routledge.
Winstone, N. and Boud, D. (2022) ‘The need to disentangle assessment and feedback in higher education’, Studies in higher education, 47(3), pp.656-667. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2020.1779687

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About the authors

  • Karen Heard-Lauréote is Professor and Head of Learning and Teaching at Solent University and is a PFHEA and NTF. Karen’s key interest in HE assessment practice is ensuring it is as inclusive, flexible and authentic as possible to ensure that we achieve the best possible outcomes for all our students.

  • Matt Johnson is Academic Lead for Learning and Teaching at Solent University and a SFHEA. Matt is responsible for delivering the Post Graduate Course for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education and supporting taught and direct applications for Advance HE Fellowship. Matt has a keen interest in authentic assessment for learning.

How to cite

Heard-Lauréote, K. and Johnson, M. (2022) Effective feedback – The power of three. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/effective-feedback-the-power-of-three/. (Accessed: 16 August 2022)

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Posted in Edition 2, Recipes for Success