Re-imagining approaches to supporting students’ learning from feedback – the hidden curriculum, care-based pedagogies and learning communities

The culmination of the assessment cycle at the end of what has been a particularly challenging year offers an opportunity (once we have caught our breaths!) to revisit our understanding of how we can best support our students to learn from and apply their feedback in ways that empower them to proactively shape their own academic and holistic development throughout their studies and beyond.

Taking stock of feedback – the 2020 NSS scores

While the NSS continues to divide opinion, the good news is that despite the disruption of the past year, the overall 2020 NSS scores have remained largely unchanged since 2019. In the area of assessment and feedback, the 2020 scores have confirmed their status as areas of challenge with 73% of students (as in 2019) offering positive responses to the core statements about assessment and feedback.
Commenting on the 2019 NSS assessment and feedback scores, Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive Officer of the Office for Students observed:

‘There is still work for universities and colleges to do to ensure that students are provided with clear marking criteria and constructive feedback – key factors in enabling students to reach their potential’.

Nicola Dandridge’s comments underline the gap that exists between lecturers’ and students’ perceptions of ‘constructive feedback’. Bridging this gap requires that we revisit the stakes of feedback with fresh eyes and that we also bring into dialogue the perspectives of students and lecturers as they intersect with the evolutions in the structural and policy contexts in which contemporary UK universities operate. Looking again at standard definitions of feedback is a good place to start.

Minding the Gap: Lecturers’ and Students’ Perspectives on Assessment and Feedback

‘Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement but this impact can be either positive or negative.’

(Hattie and Timperley, 2007)

At the level of educational theory, it is uncontroversial to state as Hattie and Timperley point out that [f]eedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement (…)’. At its best, it is a personalised and timely engagement with students’ specific place within their learning journey offering encouragement and motivation to boost their ongoing learning and attainment. However, when this taken-for-granted, ‘theoretical’ view of feedback is brought into dialogue with the lived experiences of lecturers and students, striking discrepancies in perspectives emerge. For lecturers, faced with marking hundreds of essays at the end of semester while continuing to juggle a host of other professional and lifewide balls, achieving the level of personalised engagement that ‘guarantees’ positive learning impacts can seem particularly daunting. Students, however, express, to varying degrees, some combination of confusion and disappointment when met with written feedback, uncertain how to apply feedback to improve and, in some cases, are stymied by demotivation (Weaver, 2006, Burke, 2009). This seemingly entrenched dissonance between lecturers’ and students’ perceptions of feedback signals the need to enlarge the contextual frame typically assigned explanatory power in discussions of assessment and feedback.

Mass higher education, metrics and the hidden curriculum

The impact of the accelerated transformations of the structural and policy contexts facing universities over the last 20 years is not typically considered in discussions of feedback. Yet, my own academic and professional experience suggests that this context is all too relevant. The combination of increasing student numbers and the long-standing misalignment between the school curriculum and university curricula shows up as two key impacts: first, the personalisation on which effective feedback relies is a significant area of challenge for lecturers requiring explicit provision in time, training and other resources to adequately meet the diversity of students’ needs. And second, students’ previous educational experiences do not necessarily prepare them to understand, decode and engage proactively with the explicit as well as the tacit rules or the ‘hidden curriculum’ that underpin assessment and feedback. In addition, the reported effects of this hidden curriculum are particularly marked for first-generation undergraduates who typically identify along intersectional and socially disadvantaged categories of race, gender and class. Against this backdrop, the increasing recourse to metrics to measure the quality of students’ educational experiences has had the effect of transforming assessment and feedback for many lecturers into a data-driven, pressurised, ‘end-point’ exercise which fails to address the fundamental challenge of supporting students to act on and learn from their feedback [over the whole course of their degree programme].

Learning as a process, care and learning communities

Moving beyond the current impasse requires that we consent, collectively, to re-imagining our approaches to assessment and feedback beyond the metrics. What I’m proposing is not that we ‘do away’ with data but that we begin a shared reflective process that will allow us to re-centre learning as a process (not an outcome) that is underpinned by human relationships infused with care and the commitments of community. In key respects, the pandemic has already moved us in this direction with care an intrinsic dimension of the transitional ‘no-detriment’ assessment policies adopted by Sussex and many other universities. In aligning the what and the how of feedback, these approaches invite us to integrate assessment and feedback within the essentially values-informed work of learning communities as they are being reconfigured in real time in the age of online and blended learning. Over the last academic year, as part of the semester-long academic development workshop series that I’ve been delivering entitled ‘Building online learning communities’, I have worked with lecturers on the exploration of values-informed approaches to teaching and learning in which planning, teaching, assessment and feedback form part of an integrated lifecycle. Through a focus on barriers to community, relationality, hospitability, co-creation and reflection, I have been engaged in mapping out an ethics of learning community which brings awareness to the intersecting dimensions of care for the self and others, power relations, difference, language and identity in the online classroom. An awareness too of how care can be cultivated with intentionality as a process of shared learning over time.

With hindsight, I now realise that I have been fortunate to be part of a university-wide learning community that has been a personally transformative site of learning, allowing me to integrate experience and insights from the different stages of my career across research, teaching and academic development. The following are some new reflections on the core dimensions of re-imagining feedback as a space of individual and collaborative learning which emerge (and continue to emerge) in a year of continuous learning.

Supporting students to learn from their feedback – 7 dimensions

1. Focus on building student feedback literacy.

One of key barriers to students’ ability to learn from feedback is not actually knowing how to learn from feedback. Embedding a focus on building student feedback literacy from the very start of the design phase of assessment and feedback strategies at module and programme levels offers an effective way to begin to address this barrier to learning. Providing written guidelines complemented by ongoing conversations around assessment and feedback integrated within the formative assessment cycle are concrete first steps for cultivating what Winstone et al. (2017) call proactive recipience, defined as “a state or activity of engaging actively with feedback processes”. This approach has been central to my academic development practice. Working with the School of Media, Arts and Humanities, I’ve developed two guides for students on learning from their feedback ‘How to learn from your feedback – a guide for students’ and ‘How to give good peer feedback – a guide for students’. Having been trialed with Linguistics and Online Distance Learning, both guides are available on request and can be uploaded to Canvas sites for a range of modules.

In approaching learning from feedback as a developmental process that can be facilitated with skill, transparency and care over the student lifecycle, we can begin to tap into the transformative potential of assessment and feedback to serve the values of equity, inclusion and empowerment. As a developmental process which is embedded intrinsically with the learning community, the relational dimension of the human relationships which underpin teaching and learning is of central importance.

Connecting students and lecturers in a human-centred developmental process, this approach is essentially capability and growth focused, acknowledging, on the one hand, students as active agents in their own learning. On the other hand, however, it is cognizant of the differences in power and relative agency between students and lecturers. Therefore, it also aims to provide developmental opportunities for lecturers by offering guidelines on the concrete steps they can take to mitigate the unequal effects of the hidden curriculum on different students. In practice, this means making the rules of assessment and feedback explicit by building an ongoing series of learning conversations which spans the entire module, beginning in the introduction to the module lecture and continuing across a schedule of formative assessments. It also means making office hours an approachable context in which all students are aware of the option to explore questions around assessment and feedback. In putting in place these individualised support structures, it will also be important to reflect explicitly on how groups of students such as BAME students who are reported to feel less comfortable (and therefore less likely to) approach their lecturers (e.g. Stevenson, 2012) with questions or concerns can be empowered to access these valuable opportunities to learn from feedback.

2. Make feedback a zone of care and safety by choosing language with sensitivity.

Feedback can be an emotional experience for students. This is an essential but also often overlooked dimension for understanding the observed reticence of many students to act on their feedback. That students ‘feel’ feedback is acknowledged in the educational literature (e.g. Ryan and Henderson, 2018). The power of this feeling response also shows up in students’ descriptions of their lived experiences of feedback in terms of avoidant strategies such as not looking at the written feedback, ‘putting away’ or even discarding the assessed piece of work. These visceral responses suggest that, as psychologists have long established, there is a strong correlation between emotional states and levels of motivation. The tone and language employed to convey feedback therefore have a key role to play in supporting students to access the positive emotional states which predispose them to engage with (rather than avoid) their feedback.

This does not mean that we should only ever give positive feedback. Instead, it is important to aim for an encouraging and respectful tone which strikes a balance between communicating the merits of the piece of work and suggesting areas for improvement. Ultimately, the tone of feedback is an expression of the fundamental values which inform the culture of learning that is cultivated (explicitly and implicitly) within the classroom. Therefore, in choosing the language of feedback with sensitivity, we model with consistency (through our individualised interactions with students and with the larger group) the values of positive relationality and hospitability which contribute to re-creating feedback as a site of emotional safety in the context of which students are empowered to learn.

3. Aim to answer three key questions.

Building on a learning context infused with care, the motivation to learn from feedback is also shaped by the clarity of the feedback provided. A helpful way to approach feedback is to therefore to seek to answer the following three questions:
a. What are the strengths?
b. What can be improved?
c. What next steps should be taken?
In all three areas, it is important to use precise language (e.g. explain terms such as ‘lack of critical analysis’) and give examples which refer to specific parts of the piece of work. When commenting on areas that require improvement, it is essential to focus on a small number of areas (no more than 4). It is also advisable to refer to ‘your work/essay/conclusion etc.’ as an alternative to using the personal pronoun ‘you’ to signal what the student ‘did not do’. Finally, aim to offer suggestions for practical steps that students can take to improve their performance on the next assignment.

4. Timing matters.

The timeliness of feedback also has a key role to play in students’ learning (Race and Pickford, 2007) since, perhaps unsurprisingly, feedback is applied with greatest effectiveness if it received while the experience of completing the assignment is still fresh in the mind. Taking an intentional approach to scheduling marking time and breaks is therefore an essential dimension of effective academic practice. However, given the size of some cohorts, it is worth exploring ways of supporting the achievement of the required turnaround time for marking. One approach to electronic feedback used in some universities is to develop a ‘feedback bank’ of common comments from which the marker can cut and paste. These can then be used as the foundation for personalised elements of feedback. Whatever approach one choses, however, it is essential to retain the personalised dimension of any feedback provided.

5. Tap into the power of learning community with peer feedback.

Offering students opportunities to engage in peer feedback as part of their formative assessments is another potentially transformative context in which learning from feedback can take place. This is because the reframing of the top-down power dynamic which is (perhaps unconsciously) transmitted by traditional models of feedback as an egalitarian process of exchange between peers can present students with new and liberatory ways of viewing and assessing their abilities. Peer feedback also has a key role to play in demystifying the assessment and feedback process by, for example, allowing students to work with the same assessment rubrics that will be applied to their own work. However, as I highlight in ‘How to give good peer feedback – a guide for students’, it is important to make the case for engaging in peer feedback and to offer students explicit guidelines on how to offer constructive and respectful feedback which upholds the values of the learning community.

6. Review, reflect, adapt and commit to continuous learning.

Learning from feedback is not simply relevant to students. A ‘learning communities’ approach to assessment and feedback is also an invitation to lecturers to engage in a process of continuous learning about how best to support students. Designing learning into assessment and feedback systems is an effective starting point. This translates into setting up feedback and review points across the cycle of the module. These can include a mix of formal review points such as the mid-semester module feedback and informal feedback through in-class discussions of how students are experiencing the feedback. Finally, completing the cycle of learning relies on scheduling time to reflect on and integrate lessons learned into the approaches to assessment and feedback for the coming academic year.

7. Develop module- and programme-level approaches to disseminating best practice.

While marking and giving feedback can often be experienced as an individual endeavour, lecturers’ ability to engage in the continuous learning required to support students’ learning from their feedback is, in fact, best facilitated in the context of module-level and programme-level learning communities which allow best practice to be cultivated and disseminated amongst peers. An added benefit of this approach is the possibility of beginning a collegial conversation around how students’ learning from feedback can best be supported as transferable skills which can be mapped progressively across a suite of modules. One of the aims of my academic development work for the School of Media, Arts and Humanities over the coming academic year is to begin this conversation in partnership with Directors of Teaching and Learning as well as teaching teams – starting with the creation of dynamic contexts in which module, programme and discipline-specific knowledge on assessment and feedback can be recognised and shared.

In projecting towards my own ongoing learning about assessment and feedback in community, it occurs to me that the learning community is, ultimately, a shared horizon of learning whose potentiality (to recontextualise Maurice Blanchot’s formulation) is always ‘to come’. In other words, to be continued…

Dr Eva Sansavior, Academic Developer for the School of Media, Arts and Humanities.
About me
My academic development practice builds on experience gained in major UK and Irish universities across roles in research and teaching with integrated and wide-ranging student pastoral responsibilities. A published researcher in the fields of Francophone Postcolonial Studies and Global Caribbean cultures, my current research and academic development practice are situated at the thematic interface of social justice, creative pedagogies and learning communities. Over the last academic year, I have been running the semester-long series of TEL workshops ‘Building online learning communities’. I am also organiser for the upcoming university-wide online symposium ‘Decolonising the Curriculum at Sussex’.

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