June 3rd, 2010

An Important Reminder about Feedback


I was interested in the conclusions of a study done in Great Britain that asked students about their perceptions of and experiences with feedback provided by teachers. The researchers wanted to learn more about how students defined feedback and what feedback they had found useful. Students in the study, most of whom were upper division, understood feedback more broadly than it tends to be defined in the literature. They saw it “as a complex, holistic process involving multiple ongoing feedback channels and did not focus primarily on written feedback.” (p. 27) In their focus groups, students commented on the verbal feedback teachers offered—in response to questions they asked the teachers, about the answers they offered in response to teacher questions, about a completed assignment, performance on an exam, or overall progress in the course. Given the content of the comments, many of them seem like remarks teachers made in passing—that they weren’t planned feedback activities but responses that grew out of an interaction with the student. In some cases, teachers may not have even been aware that they were providing feedback.

Even the more generic feedback teachers offer a whole class can be useful. True, some of the comments and evaluations the teacher offers may not apply to everyone, but this kind of feedback can motivate students to look at their work and see if the feedback is relevant or if they can use what the teacher suggests in their next assignment.

We do tend to forget the power of this informal, spontaneous feedback. Students can learn from it just as they can learn from the more formal feedback mechanisms. The authors make the point that teaching and assessment are not separate entities but naturally linked. “It is the nature of academic activity to divide the world into specialisms placing boundaries around subjects, and the distinction we make between teaching and assessment is perhaps a case in point. This is a divide that has placed feedback in the assess­ment arena leading perhaps to an overemphasis upon the formal summative assessment processes and written feedback.” (p. 27)

Reference: Pokomy, H. and Pickford, P. (2010). Complexity, cues and relationships: Student perceptions of feedback. Active Learning in Higher Education, 11 (1), 21-30.