Developing feedback as dialogue

Hazel Christie  Is there more to feedback than just giving written comments on students’ work?  This was dcarlessthe provocative question that David Carless posed at the start of his seminar on feedback here at the IAD last week, and the answer for him was a resounding ‘yes’.  In a lively session, drawing on his many years of research with academics and students, he argued that feedback is not so much about writing comments as about pedagogy, relationships and dialogue, as well as about the design of different kinds of assessments.  Clearly there’s a lot to reflect on here and David’s emphasis was on teasing out the issues and implications of thinking about if and how feedback is a process based on dialogue.

To do this, David looked to the range of scholarly work he has undertaken on feedback.  Some of this was familiar territory to me.  It’s well known, for example, that there’s often a gap between how useful students find feedback, and staff beliefs about how pertinent and helpful their comments actually are.  But some of it was less familiar to me.  David introduced the notion of sustainable feedback where some of the responsibility for assessment is shifted away from the teacher and on to the students.  Here we put the onus on students to undertake peer feedback and to self-evaluate their work; in this approach it is the students who generate, enact and use feedback.  And this sustainable feedback is underpinned by two issues: dialogue and trust, both with peers and with staff.  If we work hard to establish relationships of trust then the dialogue that flows from them really matters to how feedback is produced and used by students and staff alike.  So far so familiar, but I was intrigued as to why he called this sustainable feedback.  The answer lay in the pressures on academic time.  In the world of research-intensive universities, where work demands are often intense, the only potential route to enhancing feedback is to develop the ability of students to self-assess their on-going work and to undertake peer evaluation.    Finally, he looked to assessment practices, arguing that feedback is produced in and through the relationships between the assessment task design, an understanding of what quality looks like in its disciplinary context, and the students’ engagement with feedback.

dialogueAll of this helped David to situate feedback as being about much more than just giving comments back to students on their work, or about simply providing information on their performance.  The crucial thing for him is the dialogue that takes place around student work.  And his definition of dialogue was inclusive ranging from the internal dialogue that students have with themselves, to the dialogues that take place when we mentor students to become more effective evaluators of their own (and others) work, as well as the more established dialogues around written feedback.  He urged us to move towards a new model of feedback based on dialogic interaction and his principle of sustainability, rather than on a one-way information transfer based on written feedback.

So what can we as teachers do to promote this new feedback paradigm?  First and foremost we need to enter into dialogue with the students.  We ought, for example, to discuss the assessment processes so that students understand the rules of the game.  And this is about more than just providing them with a rubric.  We need to help them to unpack this so that they better understand what feedback can and cannot do.  This isn’t always obvious to students, especially those who are transitioning to university.  Secondly, we can analyse examples of feedback by giving students a range of scripts to evaluate.  This helps them to understand what quality work looks like.  Without this insight it is harder for students to engage with the messages they get in their feedback.  And, thirdly, using exemplars allows the students to develop connoisseurship where dialogue enables the students to develop a good ‘nose’ for what quality work in their discipline looks like.

A clear message from David in all of this is that feedback only works if it leads to reflection and future action.  Students need to be able to make sense of feedback and to use it as part of an ongoing process of development in their thinking.  And here David came back to sustainable feedback, and to the importance of students as providers of feedback, arguing that more is learnt from the process of giving feedback than from the act of receiving it.  And indeed, other studies confirm that students are better at giving peer feedback than they are at using ‘good’ feedback from staff or peers.  David described this as part of the ‘frustration’ of feedback where students get insight into their work but don’t know how to use it make improvements, pointing to a role for us to support our students in learning how to better use feedback.  There is a need, then, for us to find ways to provide high value feedback with impact beyond the immediate tasks.  Might there be a role here, David wondered, for flipping assessment where the emphasis is on more feedback during and within the course, and less after afterwards?

David finished by calling attention to some of the challenges of moving to a dialogic and sustainable model of feedback.  It can be hard, for example, to cater for varied learners or to build up relationships of trust in large classes, and what happens if you fail to connect with the students?  Despite these challenges, David argued that his model of dialogic feedback is an exciting and creative way forward for all parties in the feedback process.  I was certainly inspired and I look forward to hearing from colleagues about how they implement some of his suggestions.

About the author

Hazel-ChristieHazel Christie lecturers in the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh and is Programme Director for the PGCAP.

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