Dialogic Feedback

Introduction

action without feedback is completely unproductive for a learner (Laurillard, 2002)

We have always prided ourselves on the quality and timeliness of the feedback that we provide in Global Challenges courses. We take great effort to provide detailed comments, aligned to the marking schema. And we provide this feedback quickly – always within two weeks, often within one week and sometimes within an hour (on specific assignments). However, previously, students haven’t recognised our feedback as being exemplary and that has been quite disappointing given the efforts that we make. Now though, what we have come to realise is that in addition to providing feedback, we need to help students access, engage with and respond to this feedback. This is as much a part of the feedback process as the actual provision of a set of comments. Part of this realisation was recognising that providing feedback is a process rather than an isolated or boundaried event.

Although not a new term, we have defined our feedback process as ‘dialogic’. We commence a feedback dialogue from the first moments of meeting our students, and continue this dialogue through each and every session. Clearly this is punctuated by formative and summative assessments; these do not occur in isolation, but rather in the context of the ongoing dialogue.

Why is it important to ensure students are engaging with feedback?

Before we start describing our dialogic feedback process, it might be worth considering why additional steps are required to facilitate the engagement with feedback by students. Surely our job is to provide good feedback, not coach the students through reading and responding to it? Well, as I mentioned above, it might help to see feedback as an important ongoing thread that should be designed in and woven throughout the learning experience, rather than as a chore that work our way through every time students complete an assessment. It is a valid and necessary part of the teaching and learning, rather than an extra and bothersome responsibility that has been added to our workload.

It might also help to see how feedback impacts students’ perceptions of their  educational experience. A useful paper by Beaumont, O’Doherty and Shannon (2011) briefly explores some of these issues and makes some practical recommendations about how to work with feedback as a process rather than as a product that must simply be delivered.

So what do students think about feedback? Well, taking a step back from feedback, it is well established that thinking or worrying about assessment occupies most waking hours of students’ time. This really frames their whole engagement with and experience of higher education (Ramsden, 2003; Biggs, 2003). And especially for younger undergraduates with recent secondary school experiences of assessment and feedback, students view feedback as the key to succeeding in assessments. They don’t just see feedback as a product that they purchase by submitting an assignment. They see the initial explanation of the assessment, support during the completion of the assessment (sometimes including formal formative feedback and sometimes just consisting of more informal support and encouragement) and definitive feedback following their submission to all be equally important. Feedback is a ‘guidance system’ – an ongoing and tailored dialogue that facilitates optimal performance in learning and assessment (Beaumont, O’Doherty and Shannon, 2011).

Additionally, many students don’t see feedback as an anonymous set of comments but as the product of their relationship with their lecturer (Beaumont, O’Doherty and Shannon, 2011). While it might not be practical to form working relationships with two hundred students in a lecture environment, it is important to recognise that there is a strong interpersonal and therefore emotional component to giving and receiving feedback that is important to students.

What does dialogic feedback look like in practice?

In all Global Challenges courses, we have built the feedback process into the curriculum. We begin a dialogue with students at our first meeting, continue this through class work and assessment preparation, punctuate the process with formal feedback following assessments and conclude this at the end of the course with final concluding remarks. As a teacher, this process is a little more cumbersome than just formulating a single set of comments following each assessment. However, creating this dialogue enriches each teaching engagement with students. I know more about my students, my students know more about me and what I expect from them. My students see me trying to understand them and they trust my guidance – even when it feels nonsensical or alien to their usual way of working. On occasion, create equal moments of commitment with students – especially when we want them to really commit to something that they might not see as important or achievable (for example, see Essayathon). This means that as teachers, we commit to a limited period of extra accessibility or assistance (for example prioritising a cohort of students and providing immediate feedback for a limited number of hours or days). Finally, the dialogic feedback process enables me to tailor my feedback to students more directly, meaning that in many cases they achieve things that they never thought were in their capability.

It would be fantastic to say that we had a seamless online or other process that enabled us to have a continuous dialogue with students with little practical or logistical effort, but at the moment we haven’t been able to access one! So we do resort to a lot of printing and paper carrying. We keep a Word document for every student that details the feedback they have received and their own reflections on their abilities, work and progress. We add to this with every encounter – documenting our own verbal feedback and pasting in student emails etc, and at each key feedback moment (following major assessments) we bring the paper Feedback Diary for students to review and add to themselves.

The Feedback Diary begins in the first session with our Contract of Responsibilities. This details what we expect of the students during the course, and what we will commit to as lecturers. We both sign this document as an opening of our dialogue. The students then have some empty boxes with prompts such as ‘what do you think will be the hardest part of this course’, ‘are you worried about anything in this course’, ‘what are you looking forward to learning about in this course’ and ‘is there anything you think we should know to help you learn effectively in this course’. We have found that if we leave a blank space after the question, the students might or might not write on or two things. However, if we draw a half or full page box after the question, students will invariably fill the box with comments, doodles and questions. We collect in the diaries at the end of the class, and review them gradually as we interact with the students in the first few sessions. We document our comments to the students (as far as we can remember), and paste in all email communication regarding their work or assignments.

When we begin the first assignment, the students review the assignment guidelines and discuss them in class. They then document any concerns or queries regarding the assignment. We have a quick checkbox system that allows students to request face to face meetings for urgent or individual queries, and otherwise address any other issues as time allows. The students receive the marking schema at the start of the assignment process.

Any formal or informal draft review is included as assignment feedback, and comments regarding drafts are written in italics (our convention). The final submission is graded and feedback provided against the marking schema, with additional overarching comments. The students are presented with this (printed and inserted in their Feedback Diary), and there is a space for their own comments on the assignment and feedback. Again students can access the quick check box face to face meetings, or leave questions in the diaries that will be addressed prior to the next assignment. For courses with cumulative assignments we return all feedback within one week, so that as students commence the next element of their work, they already have the feedback from what they have completed so far.

Steps to implement dialogic feedback

  1. Commence a ‘dialogue’ – create a mechanism for collecting and preserving a two way conversation and introduce it to the students – begin this at the earliest opportunity – try to find out what the students expect, worry about and want to know
  2. Maintain this dialogue in the ‘downtimes’ – there are often little titbits of information that you can add between formal assignments – sometimes this will relate to individual students, but sometimes this might be something that occurred in class that relates to all students (for example, a common misunderstanding or an insightful way of understanding something)
  3. Mark the start of an assignment with documentation of the assignment guidelines (these need to be online or otherwise accessible for students, as they only see their paper Feedback Diary in class), ask students to reflect on what they are about to do, perhaps introduce some common concerns or pitfalls and ask the students to think about how they would tackle or avoid these
  4. Document any ongoing feedback during the assignment period – this also helps to avoid the terrible occurrence where a piece of summative feedback that you’ve given appears to contradict something that you may suggest to the student in passing (this might only happen to me…)
  5. Document their final feedback for an assignment
  6. Ask the students to reflect on the assignment and feedback in the diary
  7. Provide further individual and group feedback as necessary
  8. Repeat
  9. Repeat
  10. Conclude the course by appending some general comments about the progress students have made or particular concerns that they may have expressed at the beginning. Reflect the key things that the students have learned and provide the students with a copy of the Diary to keep (not all students will want it, but it is very important to some students) – this also provides a great sense of completion and closure of the encounter

If you are creating a dialogic type of feedback process for the first time, it might seem quite daunting. The format we have suggested above might not work in your setting, or might be too involved to tackle as a first step. An excellent paper by Yang and Carless (2012) suggests a fantastic way to break this down into three elements – a ‘triangle of feedback’. These elements are:

  1. The content of feedback – the cognitive element
  2. The interpersonal negotiation of feedback – the emotional and social element
  3. The organisation of feedback provision – the structural element

Considering whether your current or new process addresses all three elements would be an excellent start to developing a more dialogic feedback process.

But I have 200+ students – this will not work!!

In Global Challenges, we use this process with classes varying from 15-150 students. Admittedly, we have course tutors who help with the guidance, marking and feedback in the biggest classes, but we manage up to 80 students with one lecturer and just a few late nights through the year.

However, there is more than one way to view the ‘student’, and students are more understanding about this than you might imagine. Students are obviously most likely to think of themselves as ‘individuals’ and in the singular. However, they are mostly also very happy to consider themselves in the ‘plural’. They will appreciate the efforts of a lecturer in trying to get to know and fully support a cohort as a group as much as efforts to identify with them as individuals (in fact this may be a lot easier for some students).

So the elements of the Feedback Diary can be completed for the cohort rather than for the individual (or as a mixture of the two). This works most effectively if there is only one assessment, or if the assessment elements occur towards the end of the course.

Instead of asking students to document their thoughts individually in their diaries, you can ask them to document them individually and then collate them into one diary. This could be facilitated by a tool such as Mentimeter, or still completed on paper (although this would be more work). This Diary can be added to during each session, with students asking key questions, expressing concerns and getting feedback on their progress as a cohort. Individual students may still require individual feedback or contact, but this is likely to be a manageable number.

Additional Benefits of Dialogic Feedback

Each course produces a fantastic qualitative data set that can be interrogated in the service of a number of pedagogic evaluation and research aims. The additional beauty of this data source is that the data has been created authentically, as part of the learning and teaching process. This is not data that has been generated post-hoc by means of interview, questionnaire or focus group. Additionally, as our questions are inevitably quite open and general, students tend not to feel alienated by a question that doesn’t quite apply to them, and they seem to answer generously and thoughtfully about whatever is most pertinent to them. So while we don’t have a complete cohort answering the ‘same’ question, we have a number of very genuine comments and ideas being expressed.

Further information

The Higher Education Academy has produced this handy guide to developing student engagement with feedback, which might give a broader view on the topic in general and is a good starting point.

the_developing_engagement_with_feedback_toolkit_deft_0

With regard to the exact nature of dialogue and dialogic conversation, we have taken a very broad view of dialogue here. However, our article on Dialogics provides some more detail and further reading on the nature of dialogic and dialectic communication.

References

Beaumont, C., O’Doherty, M. and Shannon, L. (2011) Reconceptualising assessment feedback: a key to improving student learning? Studies in Higher Education, 36 (6): 671-687.

Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for quality learning at university. 2nd ed. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Laurillard, D. 2002. Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. 2nd ed. London: Routledge. [Access in the library; purchase online]

Ramsden, P. (2003) Learning to teach in higher education. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Yang, M. and Carless, D. (2013) The feedback triangle and the enhancement of dialogic feedback processes. Teaching in Higher Education. 18 (3): 285-297.

 

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