Catering to Student Wants or Needs?

It is common now for our students to be asked what they think about their pedagogical experience. One of the most important aspects on which our students are asked to comment is feedback and what has emerged is a much better understanding of what students want, what they need, and what we do and don’t provide in respect of both desire and need. If I’m honest, I’m not overly interested in hearing what students want, I want to focus on what they need. Their desires come into focus for me when/if there are different ways of achieving the pedagogical objective and I can justify (pedagogically) giving them a choice.

Of course, there are points when wants and needs absolutely coincide and feedback is one of those. Students want good, clear feedback that helps them understand how they can develop their work for the better. But we’re left with questions that need consideration. Do we all mean the same thing when we summon up the word ‘feedback’? There is the question of quantity: Is more better or worse? And more than what? What’s the measure? More importantly, there is the question of quality. What constitutes quality? And where does a mark fit in with feedback? Is it part of or separate from feedback? Finally, what about the method of feedback, how is it best delivered? Lots of questions. Here are some of my answers.

Feedback, the word implies, is about looking back at what was done. Increasingly, we hear people talk of ‘feedforward’, but that is to imply that in looking back we are not looking forward and I’d like to challenge that assumption. Listen to students, I mean, really listen. They all know that you learn from looking at what has been done before. That’s why they ask for model answers (inappropriate in our discipline) or to see examples of excellent – and poor – work, it’s why we encourage them to read previous students’ dissertations before embarking on their own. It’s why we are increasingly employing self and peer assessment, oh, and formative assessment. So, yes, feedback is about looking back, but only so that you can learn from it, develop, by applying the guidance to future work. I have been using formative assessment for a few years now and I cannot champion it enough. It makes sure that students and I are on the same page of the ‘Understanding Feedback’ manual. I weight the formative work to encourage all students to submit and as a result I get all students submitting and a higher percentage than ever used to be the case coming and discussing their ideas and plans with me. The dialogue we engage in at that point is about feedback, of course, but it’s worth emphasising that it’s not just about feedback for the student, it’s about feedback for me too. Feedback is about delivering insights; from academic to student, from student to academic. I carry those insights forward into my future dealings with individual students. Hopefully, students carry my feedback forward into future work that they do.

On the question of quantity, perhaps I give too much. I certainly give far less than I used to but still more than many of my colleagues. We employ the use of cover sheets but that is no substitute for annotations on the essay itself. Here you can help students identify patterns of errors that are easily corrected and which, if corrected, improve the work. It is here that you can give them an example of what you summarise on that cover sheet. So feedback is not just about summary and advice, it is about the highlighting of clear examples. That suggests that quite a bit of feedback is necessary. One of my lecturers when I was an undergraduate used a tick system. No ticks was bad, one tick was average, two ticks was good and three outstanding. A system that was beautiful in its simplicity and economy and I loved my three ticks – but they didn’t help me understand why the work was outstanding, which made it difficult for me to repeat what I had done.

As for quality. Well, this is easier. If a student doesn’t understand at the end what they did well and what not so well, it isn’t good feedback. (Bearing in mind that it may be necessary to go and discuss feedback with the lecturer.) If they do not understand what they need to do in order to improve, it isn’t good feedback. And we’re back to quantity here. Most commonly, I have 3 bullet points on advice, which, if applied to future work, will pay dividends. It’s just important to remember that you can’t improve everything all at once so I try and help students focus on what needs most work and/or on what is most easily and quickly remedied, the harder stuff can be done over the longer term.

The mark and its relationship to feedback? The two must line up. It’s no good giving very positive feedback and a below-average mark. What can a student make of that? So yes, the mark is part of the feedback. It’s just that it should not be the focal point if what you’re really looking to do is to learn. And I am just fine with assuming that’s what all our students come here to do. Incidentally, one year I refused to give students their mark until they came to me to discuss feedback. They had to convince me they had engaged with it and understood what they needed to do to improve. I loved it because I got to have such interesting conversations with students and really understand their difficulties. And I felt vindicated in that approach when in their next and final year of study a good number of them told me that the experience had been a key one for them since it was the first time they had really sat down and looked at feedback and then discussed it. It was a pivotal moment for me too with that cohort, because I was able to feed those insights into my lecturing. So why did I stop? Because not everyone came to get their feedback and as a result I got inconsistent responses from students when they were asked about the quality of my feedback.

The method of feedback is what is intriguing me now. I used audio feedback for the first time in January of this year. What feedback I have from students as to the utility of this method has been positive but I need to conduct more rigorous sampling before I can draw firm conclusions. I am inclined to say at this point that audio feedback will not work for all forms of assessment. I used it for a summative piece of work and students had received previous written feedback from academic staff as well as their peers in relation to the formative parts. One student I asked said it may be useful to have it in that format for future use ( you have to admire that kind of student, a first year who is already thinking about where they store previous feedback and how and whether they may want to access it). But most of the comments echoed what I thought was most advantageous: that it’s easier to hear negative comments than to read them. You can inject tones of enthusiasm, passion, regret, empathy, satisfaction and more into audio feedback and that is so very much more difficult to achieve in the written word, particularly when you are marking large quantities of work. As I say, however, I’ll need to experiment with this more before I am convinced it has general applicability.

Finally, consider what one student told me about audio feedback. They said they liked it because they didn’t have to leave home to get it! And I couldn’t just dismiss that as a typical student answer. Because it’s an important point. If more students engage with feedback because it comes in a format they can access from their bed, and if I am convinced that is the most appropriate format in which to deliver feedback, then we’re all happy. Needs and wants in perfect alignment.