Practical strategies for giving feedback that works

Hazel Christie  Here at the University of Edinburgh we’re investing a lot of time and effort into improving the quality of student feedback.  Sue Rigby, Vice-Principal for Learning and Teaching, is leading on much of this work.  To this end, Sue came to the Institute for Academic Development to share some of the insight she’s gained along the way with a view to encouraging us to think creatively about the effort we put in to feedback.  As part of this, she challenged us reflect on how we might ‘redirect our efforts’ so that we give our students ‘more of what they want in a timely fashion’.  Much of what she had to say was based on ‘harvesting the good practice’ that happens both within and beyond the University, and Sue had much practical advice to offer. The talk was both eloquent and passionate, and centred on nine top tips for improving feedback.

1. Good feedback is SHORT
For Sue, feedback is a process which helps students to take the next steps on their learning journey.  As such, it should be short and set out the changes they need to make to reach the next stage on that journey.  For some, small steps may be all they can cope with and can be crucial in moving them from an insecure to a more secure learning position; for others those small steps hold the key to moving to a ‘more sophisticated level of connoisseurship’.  Whatever their stage, feedback should be short and to the point.

2. Feedback should be USEFUL
It’s important to think about feedback from the students’ perspective – of how they are often nervous about it and about how it can be hard to hear.  As such, we need to recognise that feedback must be personal and kind because only then will students be willing to receive it.  And it must be useful.  It should begin with what is good in the piece to ‘soften it up’, then move on to what could use further work (characterised as ‘what made you laugh/what made you depressed’), and finally on to what to do for better effect next time around.

3. EARLY feedback empowers students
Timing matters and early feedback is best.  Sue came at this from a fascinating angle – and one that I certainly hadn’t thought of before – arguing that early feedback establishes trust between us and our students.  Too late, and we lose ‘leadership traction’, disempowering our students as ‘authors of learning’.  It’s important here to establish ground rules and expectations, and to harness these in early feedback.  This, for Sue, gives students ownership of their learning, allowing them to engage with it in active ways so that they become co-creators of learning.  Where feedback is given late, at the end of a course, for example, power rests with us, effectively closing off the negotiations and the dialogues that are so important to the students’ learning journeys.

4. We can get OTHER PEOPLE to give feedback
Feedback doesn’t have to come from you alone!  Indeed Sue encouraged people with big classes to seek their School’s (financial) support to train teams of people to give feedback.  And, of course, students can give feedback to each other, and often welcome the opportunity to both create and receive feedback from their peers.

5. Feedback should cause students to REFLECT
Reflection gives value.  We want students to reflect on the feedback because then they are more likely to use it.  How best to do this?  Sue suggested two possible options. First, to ask students to specify something they’d like feedback on. And secondly, to ask them to comment on previous feedback, for example by showing how they have addressed it in another piece of work.

6. Feedback should be WRITTEN FOR THE STUDENT (and not the second marker)
For Sue, the real skill involved in giving good feedback is in guiding the students to a position where they can do better.  And we don’t achieve this by writing feedback that makes us ‘feel clever’.  Again, she argued that we need to think about the reception of our feedback: comments which are akin to ‘showing off’ are experienced ‘like a slap in the face’.  Rather, ‘common English is fine’ and explanations should be ‘no more complicated than required’.  And here Sue pointed to the difficulties that arise when key terms like analyse, critically evaluate, discuss and so on are used in different disciplinary contexts.  Where there is doubt about what a word actually means we should spell it out.

7. Offer a ‘SEE ME’ option
Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where a piece of work needs so much attention that it’s difficult to know where to begin with written feedback.  In situations like this, Sue suggests it may be quicker and easier to offer a ‘see me’ option, where you can offer good feedback, and quickly, face-to-face.  Take up will be quite low, and she suggests putting a small hurdle in place, but it offers you a genuine chance to gauge where the student might be able to move to next, such that you can point to some (small) steps to help them on their learning journey.

Here Sue offering some truly inspiring suggestions.  One example was to give a lecture immediately after an exam and to use the time to discuss the answers to the questions.  She suggested that this works well for first and second years, and frees up markers to give ‘meaningful feedback’ in the lecture, as well as reducing the amount of time taken on justifying the mark given to each script.  This approach also ‘stops the nonsense of giving lots of detailed feedback on something the students have lost interest it’.

This, according to Sue, is ‘not complicated’.  We may need to find new processes to give students feedback and we should not fall into the trap of trying to replicate for 200 students the kind of teaching experience that is better suited to classes of 30. Rather, we should not be afraid to redesign our courses with a view to teaching and assessing differently, or to thinking creatively about the processes that support this.


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