The Culture of Student Feedback

Feedback is a big issue in education – how much students get, and how (or if) they use it. Feedback features in the annual National Student Survey, and no matter how good the institutional results it remains one area that is frequently marked down.
David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy published a recent paper  on rethinking models of feedback that I found quite interesting. First, I’ll explain a little about the paper itself and then my thoughts on it, particularly as it relates to institutional culture.
Boud and Molloy distinguish between two models of feedback: the traditional model of feedback, which they call feedback mark one, and their model, which they call feedback mark two. They talk about traditional models by comparing them to the process in biological and engineering systems, i.e. that ‘information’ acts on a system in order to change the output. In educational terms, this is feedback as ‘telling’, feedback as a behaviourist pedagogy, and assumes that not only is the information given sufficient to actually produce a change, but that it’s unambiguous and that students will actually make use of it.
Feedback mark two is more of a developmental process and less of an add-on extra to an assessment. The aim is to transition students to become ‘agents of their own change’ so that they seek out information for improvement themselves rather than merely respond to it. Students become aware of what quality performance and feedback look like through dialogue, and through this process students develop the capacity to monitor and evaluate their own learning. Assessment tasks are designed so that students are engaged over a period of time so the generation, processing and use of feedback happens over a number of cycles. In other words, it’s making the receipt of feedback and reflection on it, (and the development of skills to do that) explicit.
Essentially, three elements work together: learners (and what they bring to learning), the curriculum (and what that promotes), and what Boud and Molloy call the ‘learning milieu’, which is the interplay of staff, students and the learning environment. Feedback shifts from being an act of teachers to an act of students (with teacher support), from a process involving a single source to multiple sources (with a corresponding shift from an individual to a collaborative act), and from an isolated event to a designed sequence of events.

My thoughts

Feedback mark one isn’t sustainable. First, it absorbs a huge amount of time and resources, but its effectiveness is questionable in actually influencing student behaviour and improving student outcomes, since students may simply look at the mark and ignore the carefully considered comments. Secondly, if there is a dual emphasis on student improvement and on improving NSS scores then the problem is that students don’t recognise the feedback they receive as actually being feedback. Thirdly, mark one feedback isn’t fit for purpose since it doesn’t equip students for life post-graduation.
Feedback mark two is, to my mind, a desirable development. It’s better pedagogically because students actively use the feedback. It’s better for the students because they are developing (and using) skills that will help them in lifelong learning and in employment after graduation. It’s better for the institution because it reduces the workload of academics (allowing more time for research, professional development, or improving their teaching in other ways), and because it improves the quality and performance of their graduates. The NSS is actually a barrier to this because rather than acting as a measure of quality of the learning experience its focus is that of a customer satisfaction survey. Graham Gibbs has pointed out that there are much better ways of examining higher education from the perspective of quality in the excellent Dimensions of Quality, published by the Higher Education Academy.
But, all those benefits will remain unrealised unless the process can be implemented, and the process represents a fundamental shift in practice for many academics in many institutions, which of course, is the main obstacle. For the implementation to succeed it needs to reach a threshold. Implementing feedback mark two in one or two modules will probably fail to appreciably improve student achievement because it will be seen as a ‘one-off’, something new and novel and will probably hit resistance (from staff and students) because of that. It’s a little like immunisation in a population – you need a certain proportion immunised in order for everyone to benefit. Once implementation gets over that minimum threshold then it simply becomes the ‘way we do things here’, and the skills and benefits learned from the process in one module can be transferred to other modules. The problem is therefore one of institutional inertia. If the change required to get that level of benefit is so large, how are we ever going to achieve it?

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