Earlier this year I completed a resource collection focused on feedback, and was drawn to this report on the 7am podcast: Students are paying for uni. Teachers are marking for free (7am Podcast). Its starting point was: “University students don’t read detailed feedback, so what’s the point in paying academics to give it?”

Setting clear expectations for feedback

While I’m not an authority on the issues surrounding casual staff pay, and don’t intend to dispute the claims about pay made in this report, I was struck by the oddness of the rhetoric that was used to discuss feedback. I felt that this might be making expectations for staff around giving feedback a bit warped. 

In this report ‘good feedback’ is said to be ‘detailed feedback’, and the endpoint is students reading that feedback (or not, as the case may be). While the focus on ‘detailed feedback’ is tied to the core argument in this case – that detailed feedback takes time and time is not being adequately compensated – the fact that these claims about what good feedback is go unchallenged shows that this perception/rhetoric stretches far more broadly than this specific discussion.

What does detailed feedback offer students?

The truth of the matter is that ‘detailed’ feedback is not inherently good feedback. In fact, it might even be bad feedback and potentially the reason why students do not want to interact with it.

‘Detailed feedback’ seems to suggest a lot of feedback on the piece submitted. What are we focusing on in this detailed feedback? Specific ideas used? Adding multiple reasons why not to do something? The formatting of references? Grammar and spelling? 

If learners were improving this specific submission to be resubmitted, this feedback would be very valuable – students could work through and fix accordingly. But the sort of feedback being discussed is not in-progress feedback, but rather assessment feedback. In this case students will be already be looking to the next assignment, and making detailed changes to this one is now entirely irrelevant to them.

Considering the purpose of feedback

At this point it’s useful to take a step back and think about what the purpose of feedback is: giving learners what they need to be able to change the way that they do something in the near future. So the key step that we should be focusing on isn’t students just reading the feedback, but being able to do something with it. 

When we focus on ‘detailed feedback’ in this way, and the handover of the feedback as the endpoint in the process, we are focussing attention on what teachers can do with their skills in a transmission-type model rather than what students can do with their skills. We need to think about equipping students with feedback agency skills to help them with feedback generally and build the feedback we give as ‘feedforward’ to help them with our topic specifically.

Usable feedback over detailed feedback

Ok then, is it good to have detailed feedforward? Not necessarily. Once again we have to remember that it needs to be usable. People can only really take away a few key points from something – so providing a host of ideas might just leave them confused and unsure what to focus on next. Instead, providing two or three key ideas that they will be able to keep front of mind and use to guide their actions in the immediate future can be far more valuable.

If you’re giving feedback, don’t think that it primarily needs to be detailed – first and foremost, it needs to be usable. And that might actually be easier and quicker to do.

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