In talking to teaching staff about their experience of feedback, one of the reoccurring stories that comes up is about the piles of uncollected student assignments at the end of a semester. While one could attribute this to the fact that learners are ‘lazy’ or ‘don’t care (about their learning)’, this is actually excellent flag to show that there is a fundamental breakdown in the system. 

But, far from lazy’, our students are incredibly discerning bunch who are excellent at prioritisation – they just may have different values and goals to what we expect. Learners care a lot about how they spend their time (like most people do). Consequently, they don’t want to spend time doing something that doesn’t balance with the required investment. 

Student perspective: I’ve had negative experiences in the past

Based on prior experience, students may have a particular conception of what feedback is for, how it will make them feel and how useful that information is to them. They might be set in a mode where they perceive the goal of feedback as purely mark justification. If they haven’t been able to see the impact of in-progress feedback, they probably wouldn’t see the value involved in taking it to heart. So what to do to combat this part of the problem?

  • Highlight your difference as a user of feedback – if you explain that you will focus on actionable feedback that will save them time and energy on the next part of the subject, you can give them a potential reason to change their behaviour
  • Show how you are embedding feedback unpacking practices into other parts of the course and that you are interested in engaging in a discussion around feedback – if people see the impact, word gets out amongst the students and others might be more inclined to engage
  • Consider ways for students to see how feedback can lead to improvement without them being able to shelve it unopened – unpacking it in class and linking it to metrics can help learners see that there can be value to putting in the effort to utilise it
  • Communicating through audio or video adds a human side to the act of passing on feedback, helping to sidestep the negative emotions that can be felt in relation to negative comments. While the feeling might be that students may feel some trepidation about opening it, in practice this has not been the case, and it’s a good way to show your point of difference and make a break from their previous experience of feedback.

Student perspective: I’m not sure how to apply feedback to my future work

The feedback you give may focus too heavily on the present submission, as opposed to the primary focus being feedforward. It might be tempting to focus on what learners needed to improve in the piece of work they have submitted. For students, this specific work is swiftly moving out of relevance – they are not going back to change this particular assignment, so such comments do not carry a great deal of weight.

You could provide such notes in the anticipation that students will be able to extrapolate from these comments to apply the learning to future work, but this is anticipating a high level of subject and learning awareness that students may not have. A focus that students will appreciate is direct comments in relation to what they can do to improve in future assignments.

Feedback literacy/agency is a skill, and a skill that learners are unlikely to have had the opportunity to learn through their prior experiences. Helping students gain these skills is a way to give them the power to make use of their feedback. You should:

  • Give learners three actionable points of feedback that link directly to one of the things they will do within the next part of the subject
  • Provide visualisations that will allow learners to see how the meaning/feedback flows between the different assessment (and other) tasks that they are doing
  • Remind them at good times to look at the feedback for the previous assignment (or facilitate mechanisms for this to happen automatically)
  • Use in class feedback unpacking to help them see those connections
  • Discuss and provide the time to help students engage with these practices and skills. This resource provides a number of suggestions at different levels of investment for helping students with their feedback agency

Student perspective: I don’t have control of feedback

When feedback is something that happens ‘to you’, and has a negative emotional valence attached to it, it’s understandable that it might be something that you don’t want to subject yourself to. Feeling like you are purely the recipient of comments does not position you in power of your learning. You should highlight that feedback is something that learners can unpack, use, and ask for (and also create for themselves and others). Consider these steps:

  • Talk about feedback agency with your learners and help them to understand that feedback is a tool for them to use rather than something that you package and give to them
  • Use activities to show that you are creating knowledge together (rather you as their teacher exclusively passing it down) such as peer feedback, or how they can create their own feedback through self assessment
  • Once again, this resource provides a number of suggestions at different levels of investment for helping students with their feedback agency

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