In trying to solve a feedback problem, I came up with a weird solution. While the solution requires further discussion to actually be applicable in real-life situations, it provides an interesting lens on what we need to attend to make feedback agency possible. It also illuminates some issues with the current way we offer learner feedback.
You want students to come to you to get feedback on their work, but you don’t want them coming to you too much – otherwise all your time would get absorbed by responding to student emails and you wouldn’t be able to anything else done. There seems to be a natural equilibrium in the current state, but you would probably like a few more students to come to you a little more so you can feel supportive and see an improvement in the overall quality of assignments. So what do you do to offer more without being completely inundated?
The weird solution
Give each student 100 ‘feedback dollars’ that they can use throughout the semester. Asking a good question costs them $10, a question that they could have found the answer to in the unit guide will cost them $25, reviewing a draft of something $45, and so on. While this idea moves a bit close to gamification, the main points where it could fall apart are logistics (the energy spent tracking each students’ balance) and applicability (e.g. what do you do when a student is broke and they need feedback?).
Despite the issues (and potential ethical dilemmas), this thought experiment is very revealing of what happens when you shift the focus of feedback for students away from just something that happens to them, and instead turn it into a resource that they can utilise and optimise.
What would students do? They would start to think about how they could spend their feedback dollars best: “I’m going to give my tutor my draft but I’ll do it next week because I’ll have both sections done by then and it’ll still only cost me $45 to get the feedback.” And this is what we want – students thinking about how they can use their feedback to get what they need.
It also shows what happens when you actually make feedback tangible and place the capacity to ask for feedback in the students’ pockets. You are turning it into something they own and might lose benefit from if they don’t use it within a certain time period. And people hate the concept of losing something they have.
This viewpoint is also very revealing of how we don’t give feedback any solid existence at the current time. It is an etherial thing. Available, but in unknown quantities. In this way, it’s not surprising that students are unsure how to connect with it or ask for it. How much feedback can they ask for? None? Some? How much is too much? Are we expecting them to respond to subtle social cues when they are asking too much?
Whenever my students ask simple and valid questions they often seem very apologetic and grateful. This could be because they are trying to gauge where this line is (and perhaps it is in the interest of our workload to keep it somewhat vague). I wonder about the other students who don’t even get to this stage of asking the question – is it because they are nervous about even trying to figure out where this line is?
What this thought experiment shows is that there can be great value in making feedback a finite tangible entity and putting it in the hands of students to utilise. Someone just has to figure out a way to do it that doesn’t involve creating a black market feedback economy.