Meaningful feedback on assessment: Taking the long view

sunrise over mountains with silhouette of person
Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Feedback is always a hot topic. Academic staff spend hours and days marking vast (largely electronic) piles of student submissions, grumbling about workload, about bureaucracy, about students’ stubborn insistence on making all the usual mistakes. At the same time, students wait weeks (that can stretch into months) for the precious feedback on their work, sometimes only to receive a few ticks, an enigmatic question mark, and ‘very good: 63%’. On top of that, National Student Survey (NSS) season brings low scores for feedback that can set universities on the hunt for problem departments. Who is not sticking to the three week return policy? Who is not using the right functionality on the virtual learning environment (VLE)? 

Of course, that is a caricature and I personally think the ‘doom and gloom’ around assessment and feedback in the NSS is a bit overblown (Buckley, 2021) but when it comes to feedback, staff and students really do seem to live in different worlds. I did some (unpublished) research at a university in Scotland which found, to paraphrase slightly, that students think that while feedback is minimal and slow, they definitely make great use of it and staff think that while students barely read the feedback, they are given lots, and in a timely manner. 

Given this friction and dissatisfaction around feedback on both sides it is unsurprising that it has received a lot of attention in terms of research and guidance about how to do it better. It always has, but the last ten years or so has been something of a golden period for research about ensuring that feedback on assessment is as valuable and meaningful as possible. There has been an explosion of work inspired by the idea that what matters with feedback is not the information provided, but what students do with that information. Stated as simply as that, this is not really a new idea, but constitutes the belated application to feedback of an idea that has been influencing teaching practice for much longer – the shift from focusing on teaching (what teachers do) to focusing on learning (what learners do, and achieve): “In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to new a paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning” (Barr and Tagg, 1995, p.13). 

For example, one of the big new ideas is ‘feedback literacy’, as “the understandings, capacities and dispositions needed to make sense of information and use it to enhance work or learning strategies” (Carless and Boud, 2018, p.1316).  This work is prompted by the idea that feedback does not necessarily arrive with its meaning clearly obvious, or to students with the motivation and opportunity to use it, and the knowledge of how to do so. Instead, students often find it difficult to make sense of feedback information, find it challenging to know what to do with it and struggle to invest the effort even when they do know. Given that students’ active engagement with feedback is essential to it having a positive impact, the insight behind feedback literacy is that we need to actually help students to do that. 

Feedback expert David Carless has linked this recent work to what he calls a ‘new paradigm’, which sees “feedback as a process in which students engage with feedback from various sources and make use of it to improve their work and/or develop their learning” (Carless, 2015, p.192). This new paradigm is contrasted – logically enough – with an ‘old paradigm’, which is less about students’ engagement with feedback and is instead about “feedback as information that is provided: comments for students, as it were” (Carless, 2015, p.192). 

Apart from anything else, this is a historical claim. In previous decades, so the story goes, feedback was understood in terms of information provided to students about their performance, rather than a wider process of learning requiring action by the students themselves.

Put like this, I will confess to being a bit sceptical. It seems unlikely that prior to the second decade of the 21st Century, academic staff providing feedback were uninterested in whether or not that feedback was meaningful in the sense of students actually using it. No-one has that kind of time to waste, including university lecturers in, say, the 1980s. It also does not seem plausible that anyone thought that feedback would have some kind of magical effect on students’ performances which itself did not depend on students reading feedback, reflecting on it, and applying it in future work. 

But what happens if we actually look back at how people talked about feedback in earlier periods? What advice were academic staff given about making feedback meaningful? What aspects of feedback received attention? Was the focus entirely on the information that should be given to students, or was it also on students’ active participation in the process?

Back in the 1990s, in the first edition of his famous textbook Learning to Teach in Higher Education, Paul Ramsden talked about feedback as a form of teaching, that requires interaction and dialogue between teacher and student (Ramsden, 1992). Ramsden also highlighted the value of students giving feedback to each other. Sally Brown and colleagues, in 500 Tips on Assessment (1996) also highlighted the value of dialogue around feedback, as a way of making feedback ‘participative’. So, there is some evidence that students’ active involvement in the feedback process was on the radar. Going further back, Ruth Beard and James Hartley in the fourth edition of their book Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (1984) again gave advice on creating dialogue around feedback, such as getting students to evaluate examples of work. Graham Gibbs and colleagues, in a book written when Graham ran the Educational Methods Unit at what was then Oxford Polytechnic, do include advice about how to encourage students to use feedback. They recommend, for example, using weekly tests so that students get in the habit of acting on feedback, and asking students what feedback they want as a way of getting them to pay more attention to it (Gibbs et al., 1986). 

The Open University (OU), where feedback has always played a particularly central role, provided guidance that focused on various aspects of students’ engagement with feedback: how to frame feedback in an encouraging manner in order to build students’ motivation to act on it, how to create a feedback dialogue, and – in a 1980s echo of the current focus on feedback literacy – how to help students learn how to learn from feedback: “one of your responsibilities will be to train students in the methods of studentship they need in a distance teaching university. Learning from tutors’ comments is one such method” (The Open University, 1988, p.68). There is also advice about the importance of persuading students to spend time reading and reflecting on feedback. 

Going back to before the 1980s, any advice about making feedback meaningful is harder to find. Derek Rowntree in his classic book Assessing Students did offer some ‘new paradigm’-style advice about creating a sequence of learning activities so that students can use feedback to develop. Going right back to the 1960s, Wilbert McKeachie, in what even then was the fifth edition of his venerable manual on university teaching Teaching Tips (first published in 1951), talked about the way in which feedback can help students develop their motivation to learn: “a student’s motives are not fixed. Teachers can create new motives” (McKeachie, 1969, p.191).

So, even a quick survey of the advice that academic staff were given in the second half of the last century finds some evidence of ‘new paradigm’ thinking about feedback. There is advice about how to use feedback to motivate students, about how to encourage students to use feedback and about how to help students develop the capabilities to use feedback to improve. Nevertheless, it would be entirely fair to say that I am cherry-picking. Overwhelmingly, the focus of the advice in the books I’ve discussed is on the feedback information itself. When Brown et al (1996) laid out the ten principles of their ‘assessment manifesto’, the single principle on feedback merely states that “[all] assessment forms should allow students to receive feedback on their learning and their performance” (p.142). Even at the OU, where the feedback process has been taken particularly seriously, the scheduling of assessments did not apparently promote engagement with feedback: “the pacing of Open University studies will mean [students] will have moved on to other units of the course by the time the assignment gets back to them” (The Open University, 1988, p.68). So, while it is definitely possible to find bits of advice that frame students as active participants in the feedback process, they are in the minority.

On the other hand, the existence and importance of that process is clearly not in doubt, as evidenced by the recurring worry that students aren’t doing anything with the feedback they receive. For example, Rowntree (1977) worries whether “students use their tutors’ carefully-wrought responses? How do they use them? Do the comments actually help them improve?” (p.209). Gibbs et al. (1986) share the concern: “often there seems to be little evidence that students have taken the feedback seriously or even, at times, understand it” (p.171).  

So, what is new about the ‘new paradigm’ of feedback? The idea that students need to do something with feedback for it to be meaningful – the idea that feedback is a process – is not new. What is new is that we can do something about it. In the last century there was advice available about how to improve students’ engagement with feedback, but was a fairly niche concern. It is only more recently that there has been a substantive focus on how students can be helped to make sense of feedback information and use it to improve. 

The idea that students need to do something with feedback for it to be meaningful – the idea that feedback is a process – is not new. What is new is that we can do something about it … It is only more recently that there has been a substantive focus on how students can be helped to make sense of feedback information and use it to improve. 

At this point, one might wonder why any of this matters, beyond purely historical interest or adjudicating the value of contemporary feedback research. I think it is important because it tells us something about the kinds of feedback enhancements that will be a hard sell, and where we will be pushing at an open door. Given the longstanding concern about students’ use of feedback, contemporary guidance that is about encouraging students to do something with the feedback they receive is going to be fairly welcome. As Dylan Wiliam (2015) says, “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor”. There is nothing cutting-edge about the idea that unused feedback is a colossal waste of time. 

On the other hand, some of the modern ideas about how exactly we can improve students’ engagement with feedback – aside from the fantastical notion that it is something we can actually influence – might feel like bigger departures from traditional ways of doing feedback. Sharing our own personal challenges with feedback (Gravett et al., 2020 – unintelligible journal referee comments anyone?) – or getting students to generate ‘internal feedback’ (Nicol 2021); encouraging people to use specific approaches like these will take some effort. While there has been guidance along broadly those lines for decades, there is no evidence that it was a big part of how feedback was understood, either by academic staff or by the people giving them advice. However, I think it is helpful to know that the fundamental concern – is the feedback I am providing making the slightest difference? – is not particularly contemporary. Any ideas that offer hope that we are not wasting our time should find a way to a sympathetic hearing, however traditional our view of feedback might be. 

References

Barr, R. and Tagg, J. (1995) ‘From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education’, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), pp. 13-26. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.1995.10544672

Beard, R. and Hartley, J. (1984) Teaching and learning in higher education. 4th edn. Harper & Row

Brown, S., Race, P. and Smith, B. (1996) 500 tips on assessment. Kogan Page

Buckley, A. (2021) ‘Crisis? What crisis? Interpreting student feedback on assessment’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(7), pp. 1008-1019. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1846015

Carless, D. (2015) Excellence in university assessment. Routledge

Carless, D. and Boud, D. (2018) ‘The development of student feedback literacy: Enabling uptake of feedback’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), pp. 1315-1325.  https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354

Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S. and Habeshaw, T. (1986) 53 interesting ways to assess your students. 2nd edn. Harper & Row.

Gravett, K., Kinchin, I.M., Winstone, N.E., Balloo, K., Heron, M., Hosein, A., Lygo-Baker, S. and Medland, E. (2020) ‘The development of academics’ feedback literacy: Experiences of learning from critical feedback via scholarly peer review’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45(5), pp. 651-665. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2019.1686749

McKeachie, W. (1969) Teaching tips: A guidebook for the beginning college teacher. 6th edn. D.C. Heath & Company

Nicol, D. (2021) ‘The power of internal feedback: exploiting natural comparison processes’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(5), pp. 756-778. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1823314

The Open University (1988) Open teaching. Open University

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to teach in higher education. Routledge Falmer

Rowntree, D. (1977) Assessing students: How shall we know them? Kogan PageWiliam, D. (2015) Feedback for Learning: Make Time to Save Time. Available at: https://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/2015/01/06/feedback-for-learning-make-time-to-save-time/ (Accessed 24 June 2022)

PrintTwitterLinkedInEmail

About the author

  • Dr Alex Buckley is a member of the Learning and Teaching Academy at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He contributes to the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning and leads the Senior Fellowship Pathway. His research interests include assessment and feedback, student engagement and the philosophy of education. Prior to joining Heriot-Watt, he worked at Strathclyde University and before that led the student surveys team at the Higher Education Academy. He is a Senior Fellow of the HEA.

How to cite

Buckley, A. (2022) Meaningful feedback on assessment: Taking the long view. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/meaningful-feedback-on-assessment-taking-the-long-view/. (Accessed: 16 August 2022)

Post Information

Posted in Edition 2, The Bigger Picture