Developing Feedback Know How Project

Overview of the Project

This project was funded by a Teaching Development Grant awarded by the Higher Education Academy. It involved staff and students working together to discuss and co-create materials and learning resources to help first year students make effective academic transitions to learning at university level.

The project recruited experienced students to work with researchers, lecturers and library staff in an effort to heighten awareness of the central role that feedback plays in the learning process and the importance of student agency in seeking, using and activating feedback, based on the growing literature which emphasizes the importance of conceptualizing feedback as a dialogue rather than monologue.

On this site you can

  • read about the project’s theoretical premises and the approach it took
  • access materials from our Feedback Know How Toolkit, including
    •  examples of the learning resources that were developed by students
    • a staff guide with suggestions for using the student resources in your own context

Theoretical Premises

Reconceptualising feedback in higher education: towards authentic feedback

It has been widely recommended that we reconceptualise feedback in higher education (see, for example, Merry et al, 2013; Boud & Molloy, 2012; Sambell, 2011, Hounsell, 2014). This is because feedback is often seen as simply synonymous with tutor-written comments on assignments, and is frequently conceptualised in a rather limited way:

‘as the provision of information’ (Sambell et al, 2013a:73)

as ‘monologue’ (Nicol, 2010)

as ‘a matter of information transmission’

as ‘an episodic mechanism delivered by teachers’ (Boud & Molloy, 2012)

as a conduit from teacher to learner (Taras, 2013)

as ‘teacher-telling’ (Sadler, 2010)

By contrast, there are strong arguments, based on extensive research evidence and views of learning which foreground learning for the longer term (Boud, 2009), of the educational benefits of moving towards a broader definition of feedback as dialogue ‘to support learning in both formal and informal situations’ (Askew and Lodge 2000, 1). From this viewpoint, learner engagement in formative activity becomes a key driving principle which supports self-regulation and helps bridge the gap between teacher comments and what students do to effect learning. Indeed, Boud and Molloy (2012) argue that ‘feedback’ without learner engagement is simply inert ‘dangling data.’

Feedback can no longer be seen to stand alone, as it were, as a product, artefact or tool. Instead, we need to shift the focus to feedback as a relational process that takes place over time, is dialogic, involves engagement and is integral to learning and teaching (Merry et al, 2013). For instance, according to Carless et al, (2013) sustainable feedback practices are required, which fundamentally reposition feedback as an experience with the development of student self-regulation at the core:

“The focus on dialogue is central to our thinking because of the limitations of one-way written comments. We view feedback as being part of pedagogy, in that all good teaching is interactive and dialogic.”

Feedback in Assessment for Learning (AfL)

Sadler (2013: 56) argues that, from an educational viewpoint where learning is foregrounded, this way of thinking moves ‘beyond’ many of the ways in which feedback is often framed in university discourses and practices:

‘…the focus needs to shift away from the narrow issue of how feedback can be improved and communicated, towards the wider issue of how assessment (rather than feedback) can enhance student learning.’

Nicol and MacFarlane Dick (2006) have developed principles to guide feedback practice with a view to promoting student self-regulation and the capacity for self-assessment (Boud, 1995). These have been widely embraced as a means of promoting assessment for learning in many UK universities. Creating circumstances that encourage students to see themselves as active agents in their own learning and that foster a sense of the value of making (rather than simply receiving) informed judgments, are key, not least because they form an integral part of ongoing learning and evaluative practice in the world of work, where the capacity to make sense of ongoing, formative feedback from a range of sources is highly prized.

Active, social and participatory learning and authentic feedback experiences which facilitate self-evaluation through dialogue and participation all lie at the heart of our own model of assessment for learning or AfL (see Sambell et al, 2013a), which was developed as part of our Centre for Excellence in AfL. In our work we have shown in a range of subject areas that feedback is significantly improved by activities that make students’ ideas and aspects of their academic work available for discussion with competent members of the discipline community in an ongoing way. Even with large classes, if carefully thought through, this can be enacted by ‘flipping feedback’ (Hounsell, 2014) in teaching based around active-learning exercises where students spend time on task and generate real-time, authentic feedback during class time. Further, participatory approaches where students learn through working in collaboration with others create feedback rich environments through which students gradually develop a feel for standards and criteria in situated contexts. Here feedback stems from learners engaging with what lecturers and fellow students say and do in relation to a task or activity, enabling learners to gauge their own ideas, proposals and possible next steps.

These ways of engaging with feedback can be seen as the hidden repertoire of effective learners in academia, who tend to make use of a whole range of networks and informal learning spaces offered by the university. However, we know that for an increasing number of first year students, the dissonance between their understandings of how to participate in what higher education has to offer, and the expectations of academics, often presents barriers. Because of this universities are increasingly recognising the value of activities (such as the mentoring of junior students by more senior students with developing ‘expertise’ to help with academic transition) as strategies to support academic engagement, which augment more formal self assessment activities and ‘dialogue with experts’ in the formal curriculum.

In light of the above, the toolkit of resources developed in our project simply aim to act as a catalyst for dialogue and shared reflection between newcomers and more established members of the academic community about various definitions of feedback and its relationships to learning. Taking account of recent developments in research and practice, they seek to prompt discussion about the development of pedagogic and assessment literacy (Price et al, 2013) amongst key stakeholders, drawing attention to the idea of feedback as a process.

How did we create the Toolkit?

The project recruited a number of academically engaged and experienced students from different disciplinary areas to assist with the production of student-facing resources about ways of conceptualising feedback. They joined a staff team comprising of researchers, library staff and subject-specialists who worked together to exchange their experiences throughout.

Following a series of discussion-based workshops which facilitated the sharing of ideas, including research findings and previous work (Sambell, 2013b), the students made decisions about the presentation media to be used and the storyline for each example that was developed. Readily available cloud-based presentation software tools were chosen to offer an animated, interesting means of getting key ideas across, as opposed to text-heavy formats. Here, feasibility factors, such as cost and time, were key issues that were born mind. This was especially important to us, as instead of offering a ‘solution’ or ‘recipe,’ we hoped our resources might act as a model which people might want to customise to suit their own circumstances.

The video resources were developed gradually, stemming from a growing awareness that, for the students, dialogic models of feedback took the form of a sort of intuitive ‘know-how’ – a complex social skill which they largely took for granted – to the extent that they were not even aware of possessing it nor how it could be valuable to others. Tacit knowledge is, by its very nature, of course, almost impossible to articulate, as it is generally gained by extended experience, interaction and the build-up of shared understanding and trust in a particular community (Sadler, 2013). It can only be revealed through practice and transmitted through social networks. However, as their awareness of dialogic models of feedback in the literature grew, the students involved readily began to identify social practices in which they routinely engaged which revealed it. Eventually the students chose their storylines in an attempt to illuminate the ‘hidden’ sources, communities and sites of feedback as dialogue which they, as experienced learners, had learned to take for granted as a core aspect of university study.

The resources they created are primarily intended to act as a catalyst to initiate discussion. They are offered as a tool to encourage reflection, stimulate thought, and raise awareness of the ways in which learners engage with feedback via shared experiences (when it is seen in its broadest sense as all dialogue to support learning).

Feedback Know How Toolkit: Student Resources

Examples of the sorts of resources which were created in partnership with students as part of this project can be accessed at the top of this page.

Feedback Know How Toolkit: staff resources

A staff guide to using the student resources in your own teaching or induction process can be accessed via a tab at the top of this page.