Students can learn a considerable amount from informal feedback which they derive from active and ongoing participation in everyday tasks and activities as they study their courses. Informal feedback can emanate from a range of sources and methods and does not depend solely on conventional lecturer-to-student feedback. It thrives, for example, in lecture halls and classrooms where teaching and learning methods engage students and teachers in meaningful and interactive discussions, tasks and activities.
An environment that is rich with informal feedback can also be developed by participatory approaches where students learn in collaboration with others (see for instance case examples one and two). In this context, feedback comes from hearing what fellow students say and think and seeing how they approach tasks, and at the same time gauging the response to their own ideas and proposals.
Most of this feedback can ‘simply happen’ if the learning environment is set up appropriately. Yet to many people who strongly associate feedback with teacher comments in relation to formal assessment events, this may not seem like feedback at all. They see it as just part and parcel of good teaching. This, however, is a fairly good place to start, because it implicitly acknowledges the formative potential of the classroom environments which skilled teachers create. In fact, it resonates quite strongly with the wider repertoire of feedback practices which are encapsulated by the Assessment for Learning movement in schools and other settings , but which have been much less prominent in universities’ attempts to improve the student experience of feedback. From this perspective, the teacher’s pedagogical knowledge (i.e. their accumulated expertise in the day-to-day teaching, learning and assessment of their subject), is regarded as being of paramount importance. It underpins the capacity to create good learning experiences and to skilfully sustain effective classroom discourse.
Effective feedback is a critical factor in stimulating learners to improve their understanding and performance. The time and resources available for the development of effective feedback processes are, however, often limited. This suggests that we need new and different ways of thinking about feedback. One of these possibilities is to view feedback more as a means of dialogue rather than just transmission of hopefully useful information.
This briefing is based on a Teaching Development Grant which explored through interviews the feedback practices of HKU teachers who had received awards for teaching excellence ; a University Grants Committee GRF (General Research Fund) project which involved detailed classroom observations and related interviews with excellent teachers and their students ; and the integration of insights from relevant literature .
This Briefing offers guidelines for giving feedback comments to students in ways that are most likely to make a difference to the quality of their learning. The focus is on how best to comment on work that has been submitted for evaluation, whether formal or informal, and whether the comments are handwritten, word-processed, given verbally, emailed or digitally recorded.
The guidance offered is wherever possible evidence-informed, drawing on published research and scholarship together with my own insights and reflections as a lifelong journeyman in the craft of feedback-giving. It must be emphasised, however, that feedback in higher education is – inescapably – contingent. It is always given on specific pieces of work that are undertaken to particular subject and course requirements and expectations of quality, and at a given level of study. The nine principles I outline are therefore not blueprints, but suggestions for your consideration as you reflect on your own particular responsibilities in feedback-giving.
A common concern amongst undergraduate and taught postgraduate students is that feedback on their work comes too late to be useful or useable. This Briefing explores how university teachers can ‘flip’ or reverse that retrospective focus by opting instead to give feedforward, ‘real-time’ or embedded feedback.