Feedback – closing the circle

In Change Makers, we put a lot of effort and time into constructing critical, engaging and empowering feedback for students. However, perhaps now is the time to shift our focus away from the construction of this feedback and onto the subsequent deconstruction by students.

I have just read the brilliant new paper by Monika Pazio about the interpretation of feedback by students:

Monika Pazio Rossiter (2022) ‘What you mean versus what you say’ – exploring the role of language and culture in European students’ interpretation of feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2022.2097197

The paper looks at the socio-cultural and linguistic factors that impact the interpretation of feedback by students. I found the examples provided and the rich data presented challenged my confidence in the usefulness of the feedback that I so painstakingly craft for my students.

This challenge is helpful and has already inspired some new ideas to incorporate into our feedback provision that might help students understand the intention of comments that we make in good faith.

At the moment we understand that good feedback fulfils our own expectations of the feedback that we provide to students. We try to encourage, scaffold progress, recognise achievement, offer critique and indicate areas for improvement. But we do that according to our own ideas about what we can offer and how useful that can be. Perhaps we need to stop and consider how students actually receive and interpret that same feedback. Monika’s paper is an excellent place to start on that journey.

Here are some of the issues raised, as relates to our own feedback practices in Change Makers.

Disciplinary grading practice

Perhaps an obvious source of conflict arises in the actual grading rather than the feedback itself – with non-STEM disciplines and interdisciplinary work being graded in a different way to STEM assessments. Many of our students will never have encountered a grade of less than 90%, and cannot comprehend why we would think a grade of 75% is exceptional. To them this is a devastating disappointment, and they wonder where they lost the 25% of their grade.

We take the time to introduce our mark schemes and grading expectations with students, early in our modules. This is critical to prepare students for receiving their feedback and grades, and while they may not like this difference from their home discipline, they are mostly able to understand and accept their grades with us. However, we don’t specifically talk to students about the nature of our written comments, and perhaps this is something we could incorporate.

Positivity Bias

In general, across all aspects of our learning and teaching encounters, we practice positive feedback – prioritising recognising and celebrating positive ideas, skills, behaviours and attitudes in all aspects of our learning together. Not to say that we don’t pull up bad behaviour or practice, but the positive feedback is the focus of our interactions.

This works well in-the-moment of interaction – and creates a positive culture of encouragement and support.

As teachers, we mirror this culture in our written feedback. However, I wonder whether students ‘read’ the culture of the various aspects of learning with us (classes, emails, assessment, feedback) as a continuous experience. Perhaps they don’t ‘read’ the written feedback that we provide as belonging to the culture of our classroom, but instead to the culture of grading and success in their wider university experience. Without the lens of our shared experience, this could create difficulties in interpreting our feedback. Perhaps then this might lead to a mismatch in their understanding of the narrative feedback and their grade – creating confusion, anxiety and frustration.

As above, I think that some discussion of the style and nature of our feedback comments might help students better contextualise our feedback. We might also consider better signposting within our feedback – at the moment we have comments aligned to the mark scheme, an overall impression of the assignment comment (that is designed to explain the overall grade), a feed-forward comment and then a comment relating to the assignment within the context of the whole module. These are clearly labelled, but perhaps each of the mark scheme comment sections could be more definitively framed in some way.

Encouragement as feed forward

We never see our feedback as being the end of something. We always see our feedback as contributing to the next assignment, to the students further study in their own department or even to the student’s life beyond study. For this reason, we try to always frame our comments as an encouragement to move forwards. This goes beyond a simple feed-forward comment, and infuses our language and style of commentary.

However, as mentioned above, this depends on the students ‘reading’ this feedback as belonging to the culture of our classroom and time together, rather than belonging to the institutional culture of grading and ranking.

Additionally, we are also now pressing into wider cultural expectations of the role of the teacher, the nature of assessment and the sociocultural use of language. In a diverse student group, the same encouraging statements might be interpreted very differently.

This also then highlights our own cultural backgrounds as teachers. Within our team we have some cultural diversity, but in general err on the side of what might be considered ‘British politeness’. This means that we are delicate in our critique, and perhaps couch our critique in ‘softer’ and ‘less precise (or brutal)’ terms than we use for our positive comments. We also have a tendency to situate the more critical comments within a ‘nest’ of positivity about other aspects of performance. In our minds we are cushioning the negativity and providing the necessary critique without disheartening the students. But in the student’s minds, perhaps we are confusing the work needed to improve or even hiding the useful comments within a false or over-emphasised web of positivity.

As an aside, I stand by every positive comment that I make – I feel it is critical to celebrate the positive achievements (even if they might appear small or tangential to some) of students. And I feel that our students in particular (perhaps due to that institutional culture) undervalue positive feedback and overvalue critical feedback. So perhaps, subconsciously, I am attempting to redress this imbalance, but actually I am making my critical feedback less accessible and harder to access. I need to find another way to provide both.

Caring personalised feedback

I am very proud of the personalised approach taken by our whole team with regards to feedback. We practice Assessment FOR Learning in the classroom, and therefore work closely with our students on their assessed work. We develop close working relationships, know the strengths and weakness of our students, know where they are expending extra effort or perhaps strategically saving effort. We know when our students are taking risks or playing it safe. We know when students have exposed a personal or challenging aspect of themselves in their work.

Or we think we do.

What I mean by that, is we cultivate these deep and meaningful relationships and they are incredibly useful to help us support the students. And these relationships frame OUR entire experience of TEACHING at the College. But we can only understand and access our own sides of these relationships. Our STUDENTS experience these relationships in the much more varied context of their whole LEARNING experience at the College. And for the students therefore, these relationships might have a different valency. They might see them as a by-product of their learning with us, and not a critical and formative part of that experience. They might even deliberately separate these relational experiences from their own formal evaluation of their learning experience or achievement.

So while it is important to us, as teachers who know and care, to show this knowing and caring in our feedback, we have to recognise that our students might not expect or understand these expressions in their feedback.

In many cases, we scaffold this use of feedback throughout our modules, introducing students to the style and nature of feedback that they will be receiving – through informal activities and formative assessments. But we shouldn’t forget that this is another aspect of our classroom experience that students might struggle to recognise or engage with in their own interpretation of feedback.

Precision of language

This is partly a cultural issue, but partly a native language/linguistic issue – but our own use of language and that of the students is likely to be quite different. And the more words we use to express our feedback, the more potential there is for a word to be critically misunderstood. Although, clearly the more words we use, the more deliberately we might be able to express and underpin our critique.

In some of our modules, we use ‘experiential’ feedback rather than ‘technical’ feedback. So for example, in the feedback relating to a piece of persuasive writing, we might comment on how the writing makes the reader ‘feel’, rather than on the students use of grammar.

This has been a powerful tool in helping level the playing field in terms of understanding feedback. In these particular examples, the students receive frequent formative and summative feedback. And we talk extensively about the feedback – individually, in groups and as a whole class. In this way, we define and practice our own vocabulary as a class. We choose the words that have made us laugh, moved us forward in our understanding or have cultural meaning and capital to us as a group of people in this shared endeavour. And the frequent use of feedback (it is a constant stream of review and commentary that is documented in a feedback diary) means that this practice is cemented between us. Avoiding perhaps more common ‘feedback’ words, means that we avoid the implicit interpretations and meanings that might be different for different students. We choose words that we all define together, in a new context. Rather than trying to redefine or amend existing preconceptions.

In a way, we are subverting precision, often using words that in another context would have a different meaning. But by avoiding all words that do not have a situated meaning that we have constructed together, we personalise our communication, increasing engagement with the feedback and creating a sense of privacy or even intimacy.

But does this limit the utility of this feedback to our specific context, or can students apply their learning in a wider context? Well, we discuss this frequently throughout the module, but also use our final feedback to provide some translation of our progress together into tangible takeaways for that wider context.

Mismatch with feedback comments and grade

Finally, all the above points can lead to a persistent sense of mismatch for the students between their comments and their grade. We can provide as much context for the grading as possible, we can discuss this at length with students, but we can’t stop the students’ internal grade meter calculating what the comments ‘mean’ in terms of the grade – even when they already know the grade. It is a felt sense, not a rational and contextualised calculation.

There is also the balance of comments. Some students will sense that a greater number of positive comments than negative means a higher grade. Some students will feel that a single positive comment outweighs other negative comments. How do we account for the nuances and differentiation in our feedback, when the grade is a single number?

So is there a way to add some non-numerical, interpretive grade indicator to the comments? I wonder about having a traffic light system, where comment boxes against different criteria are coloured to indicate a grade boundary (pass, merit, distinction for example) that is absorbed implicitly while the comments are being read. Or a little grade thermometer (the higher the mercury the more has been achieved in that criteria). Some visual sign that contextualises the individual set of comments for that criteria.

I’m sure that this is something we will be discussing as a team moving forwards into the new academic year.

For practical examples of how we engage students with feedback in the classroom, see this follow-up post.

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