5. Information provided is usable and learners know how to use it
One of the key elements of effective feedback is the ability for learners to use performance related comments in order to improve in a subsequent task. For the feedback process to be successful, it is therefore critical that educators consider what learners will do with the feedback comments, and how usable they are. This necessarily requires that educator-provided feedback comments are clearly interpretable by the learner, and provided in time to be used on a subsequent task.
- Feedback comments need to be both forward and backward looking. Case study 3 demonstrated that feedback comments could look back at how the learner performed in their previous assignment, as well as looking forward to what they could most usefully improve as they face their next hurdles.
- Feedback comments need to be provided at a time that learners are best able to use them. In Case study 6, feedback information was provided to learners rapidly: learners received immediate responses to multiple choice questions, detailed group comments on observations of clinical simulations at the next meeting, and one-to-one discussion of clinical performance on the same day. In Case study 4, learners received feedback comments via social media constantly throughout the semester as they completed their work.
- The timing of feedback comments may need to be anchored to a subsequent related task. Feedback comments in Case study 2 were scheduled to occur seventeen days after the due date of each assessment task, which meant that learners received their feedback comments seven days before their next assignment was due. This element of the feedback design was closely linked with in-class activities to maximise the impact of forward-looking feedback on learners’ preparation for the next assessment.
- Feedback information needs to be actionable. Feedback comments need to provide some insight into what the learner can usefully improve. For this reason, it is most likely that some specificity and detail to feedback comments will be more useful than generic praise or criticism. An example can be found in Case study 2, where educators used audio recordings to explain how learners could use feedback comments in their next assessment task, and incorporated concrete examples drawn from the learner’s work for both positive and critical comments.
- Learners need to be able to make sense of the information. This point has two implications. First, it means that the educator-provided information needs to be created in a way that is most likely to be readily understood by the learner. Second, it means that learners may need support, resources or explicit teaching in order to gain the skills and knowledge to make sense of the information. For example, alongside the feedback comments, the educator may need to provide additional resources that explain key ideas, exemplars, or study guides. In Case study 1, educators introduced each assessment task to learners, explaining how it would extend their skills from the previous task and prepare them for a subsequent task.
6. It is tailored to meet the different needs of learners
It is unlikely that a single feedback design will be effective for every type of learner, so it is important to try to understand the nature of different cohorts. It can also be worthwhile for educators to pay attention to each learner’s individual strengths and weaknesses, and their personal barriers and motivations. Feedback can involve a large emotional investment for both educators and students. Tailoring feedback can involve extra work from educators, but these efforts can foster a relationship of respect and trust, and ultimately increase learners’ levels of receptiveness to the feedback comments. Individualised feedback can also help learners feel more engaged and motivated to achieve.
- Understand that first year learners may need extra support. There can be dramatic differences between feedback experiences in secondary school and university. First year learners may therefore lack the knowledge of how best to enact feedback comments to enhance their future work. This was recognised in Case study 1, in which the educators worked towards ascertaining individual learners’ capabilities, barriers and motivations. In addition, they were assisted in their transition with assessment tasks that aimed to incrementally build their skills around seeking and using feedback.
- Foster relationships between educators and learners by maintaining consistency of assessors. In Case study 2, educators were assigned to assess the same cohort of learners across multiple assessment tasks throughout the semester. In this way, assessors were able to monitor learners’ progress across multiple assessments, thereby developing an understanding of each learner’s strengths and weaknesses, and what sort of information they needed to improve.
- Ask learners what they want with relation to feedback. In Case study 6, the subject co-ordinators sought information from learners at the end of each teaching period to ascertain how feedback processes could better meet the needs of learners.
- Recognise the emotional impact of feedback. Students can have emotional reactions to feedback comments, particularly those provided by their educators. Comments that are too harsh or overly critical may be ignored by students, or make them feel discouraged. This was recognised in Case study 7, as the educators teaching into that subject were encouraged to use respectful language in feedback comments. Case study 2 also primed educators to recognise the potential emotional impact of feedback by placing markers in their learners’ shoes, with educators receiving audio feedback on their own feedback to learners.
7. A variety of sources and modes are used as appropriate
Effective feedback involves providing information to learners through a range of sources and modes. Multiple sources and modes can be used for the same feedback instance, as well as across feedback instances over time.
- Learners need opportunities to engage in feedback cycles with a variety of sources. Feedback comments are often provided by people with whom learners engage regularly in class, such as educators and peers. However, they may also be provided by people in learners’ wider personal networks (e.g., family, friends, and educators), as well as from sources that learners have never met (e.g., online support and tutoring services, social media users). There are also a variety of automated feedback sources, such as intelligent tutoring software, online quizzes, grammar checkers, program compilers, and simulators. This was a strong component of Case study 5, as learners were able to regularly receive feedback comments from teaching associates during and after each practical classes, from senior educators in optional weekly drop-in sessions, from peers when developing group presentations, and from software that designed individual revision packages for learners based on results from online test scores.
- Feedback comments can be provided using various modes. Written comments and rubrics are not the only way for learners to receive performance information. Different modes of feedback comments can cater for a variety of learner needs in differing contexts. In some contexts, a mixture of modes can complement each other and help learners’ sense-making of the information. Feedback comment modes include dialogue (in person or via videoconferencing), audio and video recordings, screencasts, inking, and track-changes. In Case study 2, educators recorded audio files with feedback comments relating to a journaling task, while in Case study 1, students received face to face feedback from educators and peers on multimedia presentations during a Medieval Expo event. In Case study 4, learners received feedback comments through a variety of modes: audio, traditional long-form text, and short-form text (Twitter).
- Tailor different kinds of feedback to different types of tasks. The feedback design used in Case study 6 recognised that different activities and forms of feedback were needed for different purposes. For example, for learning outcomes related to clinical skills development, learners undertook practice activities while an educator provided feedback comments based on direct observation of their performance. Likewise, in Case study 2, audio recordings were used to create feedback comments, as the conversational tone complemented the reflective nature of the journal entries that were used as assessment tasks. The subject outlined in Case study 4 was specifically designed to build learners’ skills in the kinds of activities that would be required of them in professional practice. As the subject related to digital media use, it was appropriate to use an assessment and feedback design that utilised social media (such as Twitter). This sharpened learners’ focus and motivation, as they were fully aware that their learning would be utilised in their future professional settings.
8. Learning outcomes of multiple tasks are aligned
Feedback is not an isolated event, but a cyclical process in which learners obtain information related to an initial performance, and use that information to improve their future work. Effective feedback design therefore involves the alignment of multiple assessment tasks with linked competencies, interspersed with opportunities for learners to seek and receive useful information that can influence their next task. In this way, each feedback cycle builds on the previous one, and learners have several opportunities to demonstrate their understanding and strengthen their performance.
To enable this, educators should consider designing assessment tasks, assessment criteria, and feedback approaches simultaneously, so that they are all aligned and relevant to the learning outcomes. Mapping out assessment and feedback designs early on will help identify ways in which assessments can be linked or reconfigured, how feedback can best be integrated, and what role the learner will take in the feedback loop. Educators who clearly demonstrate to learners that the assessment, feedback, marking criteria, and learning outcomes are aligned may foster higher levels of learner engagement and motivation. This is because the purpose of the tasks will be clear, as will be the ways in which the feedback comments relate to the learning outcomes.
- Enable learners to use feedback by explicitly designing connected assessment tasks. This was demonstrated in several cases in this project. For example, in Case study 4, the two big summative tasks overlapped in terms of learning outcomes, and students used the feedback from one to do better at the next. In Case study 7, assessment tasks were designed so that learners were challenged to meet more difficult learning outcomes over time. The tasks also contained overlapping competencies so that learners had an opportunity to enact new strategies they had gained through engaging with peer and educator evaluative processes. A similar design was evident in Case study 1, where assessment tasks were iterative and comments were provided quickly, allowing learners to improve in related tasks. Strategies for enabling this design involve spacing tasks out, front-end loading tasks at the start of the subject, and providing low-risk tasks. Case study 2 also featured a series of three journaling tasks, with learners directed to build on past tasks through in-class activities and feedback that explicitly referenced directions for the next journal.
- Plan for interconnectedness of tasks and feedback across subjects and programs. In Case study 3 the team had a long-term development plan for the improved design of the subject, based on best-practice literature. This plan was actively driven and supported by an education manager, and supported by the Faculty and school.
- Ensure that standards and criteria are clear. The alignment and interconnectedness of tasks are dependent on teachers and learners understanding of the standards and criteria of those tasks. In Case study 1, learners were explicitly made aware of the standards and criteria for assessment tasks early on. Rubrics were provided for all assessment tasks at the commencement of the subject via the learning management system, and learners were asked to assess their own performance on the major assessment task (the research essay) using the same rubric as the educators.
- Provide early feedback opportunities. Feedback influences subsequent work and learning strategies, therefore, learners would benefit from more feedback opportunities earlier in a subject. In other words, feedback should be front-end loaded. An example of this was found in Case study 5 in which learners had the opportunity to understand the effectiveness of their study techniques early in the semester through the regular use of clicker quizzes in laboratory sessions, fortnightly in-class short answer tests, and by receiving immediate feedback comments on online quizzes.
- Feedback should be a regular occurrence. When learners are provided with the opportunity to experience regular and varied feedback loops, the likelihood of important information being understood and acted upon increases. This was evident in Case study 4, where feedback occurred not just in isolated instances, but comments were provided to learners regularly via social media. Similarly, in Case study 5, the feedback design included face-to-face discussions, clicker questions, written feedback on tests, on line quizzes, and peer assessment.