Feedback is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing university students, teachers and managers in today’s new tuition fee era. Warwick is certainly no exception to this trend. The recent institution-wide Fabulous Feedback competition prompted a huge response from students in all faculties, demonstrating the depth of feeling about feedback at the University. The close nature of the competition, amongst tutors in the Arts Faculty in particular, also underlined the extent of good feedback practice already in place at Warwick. Likewise, the £1000 prize money for the winner in each faculty emphasised the University’s commitment to promoting and disseminating good practice.
The French department emerged from the competition with four tutors in the Arts Faculty top ten, with my colleague Professor Seán Hand named the winner with most student nominations. Like my co-nominees, I was surprised, if also delighted, to have been named in the top ten, and have since been approached by colleagues in pursuit of some secret feedback formula. This has provoked much soul-searching on my part; is there a secret method for feedback? And what constitutes feedback in the first place?
An informative starting point is the Warwick Student Community Statement, agreed between the University and the Students’ Union in October 2012. The Statement recorded the importance of feedback in the student experience and committed to:
Relevant and meaningful feedback on [students’] work in a variety of formats that will help [students’] development’
Warwick’s definition of feedback is therefore multi-faceted. Teachers’ feedback should be relevant to the assessment or task undertaken, it should have some meaningful purpose and should point towards areas of development. Few reflective and motivated teachers would take issue with any of these points. We would no doubt wish to receive relevant feedback with clear areas for development on our own teaching or research.
Clarity is, in fact, a worthy aim for any feedback. Like many other professions, academia is teeming with jargon of one kind or another. While it is not always possible to eradicate jargon completely from feedback, it should be minimised. It would, for instance, be counter-productive to assume that a languages student who has made a number of basic grammatical errors is well-versed in technical grammatical terms. While in no way advocating a ‘toning down’ approach to teaching and learning at university level, at the very least feedback should be accessible; to use complex terminology is more likely to obfuscate a problematic area for a student rather than aid understanding.
The second strand to the University’s commitment to feedback revolves around the term ‘meaningfulness.’ It is not unreasonable to assume that ‘meaningful’ feedback involves some form of end goal, that it serves a practical purpose. A common feedback approach, and one which I employ consistently in my own teaching, is the tripartite technique in which the teacher (or other feedback facilitator) first lists the areas of success in the assessment, then details areas for improvement or development, and finally issues the reasons to be confident for the future. Of all three sections, it is the second which has most relevance to the issue of ‘meaningfulness.’ Simply listing all the areas in which the assessment has aroused cause for concern is not in itself meaningful feedback. Rather, what the recipient of the feedback (in our case the student) wants is to receive some practical tips on how to address these causes for concern. This might include providing references to appropriate literature, including text books or other secondary material, or to relevant lecture notes to enable the student to develop their work ahead of the next assignment. Meaningful feedback does not necessarily mean providing step-by-step instructions for students to overcome problem areas; rather, through signposting appropriate learning materials, the feedback process remains an active, rather than passive, experience in what is sometimes called ‘feed forward.’
It is an all-too-common experience for university teachers to witness students simply note the mark for their assignment and ignore the accompanying feedback. One means of overcoming this demoralising trend is to list the mark after any feedback; while no means failsafe, it at least incentivises the student to read through feedback before looking at the mark. Through providing a series of scaffolded, practical measures for students to develop their work, without offering excessive explanations—and thus avoiding the pitfall of working for the student—feedback provides a meaningful plan for the future which maintains the student’s attention more than simply stating the areas of difficulty.
The final aspect of Warwick’s feedback commitment which merits discussion is the suggestion that feedback may be provided in ‘a variety of formats.’ Good feedback need not be delivered in a cutting-edge manner; indeed, some excellent feedback practitioners within the French department continue to handwrite their feedback. Nonetheless, it is important that feedback is accessible and, at a very basic level, legible. Providing feedback at the very end of an assignment, on the final page of an essay, for example, goes some way to ensuring it is digested by students. However, in an era where nearly every student in the lecture theatre or seminar room possesses at least a laptop, if not also a smart phone and a tablet, feedback can also take on digital forms. At a recent Window on Teaching event at the Teaching Grid, a particularly pertinent form of digital feedback was showcased by Russell Stannard, Principal Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Applied Linguistics.
Russell’s promotion of screen capture feedback offered an insight into employing Jing and Camtasia in a language-learning setting. While the length of screen captures on Jing is limited to just five minutes, Camtasia allows for prolonged feedback. Russell noted that one of the limits to the screen capture approach for language teaching is the temptation to focus too much on surface errors rather than deeper areas for development. What the capture software does offer, however, is the possibility to directly engage the student in a way that written feedback cannot. This helps to overcome the issue of ignoring feedback; if students are obliged to watch a five-minute screen capture, they might perhaps absorb some of the constructive comments. Having trialled Jing with a group of second-year undergraduates on the core French language module, this feedback method has struck me as immediately more interactive than traditional feedback. Nonetheless, teachers may find that they are obliged to read through the piece of work before recording the screen capture. Marking work ‘live’ requires a good deal more thought than working through an assignment having already highlighted areas of success or difficulty. Screen capture certainly offers an interactive feedback method, and its audio-visual nature is more striking than written notes, but it is certainly not without its limitations.
There is clearly no definitive method or technique for feedback, and this blog post has not intended to offer one. Through engaging with technology and through striving to provide feedback with tangible, practical means for development, however, teachers can go some way to meeting the reasonable expectations of students in the current higher education landscape. The continued dissemination of best practice across the institution—whether through Window on Teaching events or through initiatives like the ‘Fabulous Feedback’ competition—will also continue to drive up feedback standards at Warwick.
Internet resources on higher education feedback:
Series of best practice guides available via the Learning and Development Centre
Assessment and feedback resources at Queen’s University Belfast
University of Bradford assessment and feedback pages (includes some references to literature in the field)