Good practice in feedback on formal reports, assignments and dissertations Alan Webb HEA Engineering Subject Centre Associate 16 th April 2008
Feedback: everyone’s an authority on how it should be done! We tend to be conditioned by the journey we have taken in our own education. We tend to construct models based on our own experience and developing practice. Superficially, we might presume that we are operating within ‘good practice’ but is this a safe assumption?
Engineering academic operating in the ‘arrogance zone’
Shedding baggage As scientists and engineers within education, we need to accept that peer reviewed publication evidence is relevant to our own practice in assessment and feedback. Included within this is the need to recognise that relevant publication evidence can come from other discipline areas. This latter point is particularly relevant to written work, where issues cross disciplines.
Challenge 1: Have I considered any of the literature on feedback practice? A straightforward question here but a critical one, especially in the light of the session that Jane has just led in relation to the research in this area. We would like to believe that we have subject authority in our specialist subject areas but have we got similar authority in relation to our practice as professional educators?
Challenge 2: Have I put any of the ‘published wisdom’ into my feedback practice? A more intrusive question here, which strikes at the heart of our professional integrity It is one thing to know something about the literature base and what it has to say – it is another thing entirely to translate this into our professional practices within the job
Learning as a form of conversation Learning has generally worked best where there has been dialogue, rather than a one way process. The apprentice learns in the context of working along with an expert and seeing and hearing how things should be done – this includes the opportunity to ask questions and make mistakes! Effective teaching and learning environments facilitate questions or some form of meaningful dialogue within the learning process – in mature learning, self-reflection leads to asking oneself questions and then seeking appropriate answers.
Promoting deep learning If we want to encourage deep learning, we must be wary of spoon feeding, other than for the purpose of bootstrapping deeper inquiry. Some spoon feeding is inevitable, if students are to reach the point where they can ask deeper questions. Fundamentally, we need to challenge our students to start to ask questions; Anything we do within our teaching and learning practice, which encourages this deeper inquiry, is promoting deeper learning. Every event or meeting, where we meet with students, should encourage deeper questioning; If lectures, tutorials, seminars, laboratories etc. are too passive, we cannot expect students to become autonomous self-reflective learners.
Feedback should be a natural extension of a dialogue that begins within sessions
Building respect sets the scene Students need to have confidence that we are authoritative in our teaching areas and that we have something worthwhile to communicate about our subject. Good connection with the students in live sessions helps to build the respect and establish some sense of dialogue. Challenging questions within sessions may help to awaken an interest in later feedback.
Some desirable feedback features It is personalised and appears to be an extension of a ‘voice’, already encountered in sessions. The language is understood – possibly this can be helped by things said earlier in timetabled sessions. Criticism is not destructive or brutal but given in a context that comes across as informative, encouraging and supportive towards success. Feedback reveals ways to improve scores and appears to be genuinely helpful.
Feed-forward within sessions can help students to feel encouraged and supported
Assignment launch: an attention-grabbing opportunity After module/subject induction exercises, assignment task launch occasions are times when students will tend to ‘sit up’ and listen carefully. Assessment is a recognised driver for learning so feed-forward information will be better received, if it is seen to be relevant to scoring better in assignments. If students are encouraged to ‘talk about the subject-matter’, written work becomes a natural extension of this process.
For written work, all feedback should prepare for higher attainment
Assume each candidate may be heading for a PhD or beyond! This may seem to be unrealistic but it’s a good way to promote high learner esteem. A year-1 report can be an early vehicle to prepare for a final year honours dissertation; The process is iterative and progressive so it needs to cross subject and level boundaries. Good writing skills and reporting practices prepare candidates early, for professional practice.
Politicians aim to say it once, in a memorable way: Why do we keep repeating our feedback?
“Never was so much owed by so many to so few”, Winston Churchill, August 1940
Feed-forward documents or statement banks, whether hard copy or on-line, make excellent reference sources For medium to large sized groups, we will not have time to write detailed comments on all relevant aspects of the work. If feed-forward information has been provided in advance, it becomes more efficient to refer back to this, rather that developing writer’s cramp. It is more realistic to give consistent high quality feedback if we are working from a pre-prepared bank and we can re-use material.
Exercise: We are going to undertake a short assessment exercise on draft abstracts, relating to project dissertation work
Perish the thought but a case could be made for a well-managed feedback regime We might have developed a programme specification with a well defined learning outcomes matrix but what have we defined for feedback? Can we be sure that things will operate well on the basis of collegial approaches and trust or do we need to monitor what happens in relation to feedback?
So let me get this right …in addition to a learning outcomes matrix demonstrating constructive alignment, we will now be asked for a feedback conditions matrix with aligned feedback conditions! Ready to embrace changes in practice?