Picture the scene. You want to learn how to drive, and so you sign up for a course. Except it’s not what you expected – no-one sits in the car with you. Instead, you’re shown photographs of people driving, and given books on clutch use. You start to feel anxious. ‘This is all very helpful,’ you say. ‘But I need ongoing feedback? I’m worried I won’t know where I’m going wrong.’ ‘Oh, you’ll get lots of feedback,’ you’re told. ‘But not until you’ve taken the test!’
This imaginary scenario is meant to bring to life the critical importance of feedback to the learning process; indeed, it is widely identified in the pedagogical literature to be the single most important element in effective learning. Yet in Higher Education feedback practices are often based on an old-style model of learning as a ‘thing’ to be ‘given out’ rather than an activity to be undertaken. Put another way, when it comes to feedback, we tend to treat our students as passive recipients of information that we transmit to them rather than as active participants in an ongoing process. And yet feedback can be understood very differently: not just as an exogenous measurement of learning that has already taken place but also as a crucial site of learning in and of itself.
The ‘feedback challenge’ over the next ten years is to reposition feedback as an ongoing dialogue that takes place throughout the learning process rather than as a product to be provided at the end of a learning cycle/activity. There are concrete, practical measures through which this can be achieved (for example, by reducing summative assessment loads in order to create space – and time! – for colleagues to provide ‘feed forward’ feedback on formative opportunities). Some of the blog posts emerging from the Big Conversation highlight tools and approaches that might help us here. Technology might mean that we don’t have to be in the same room as our students in order to engage in a dialogue. Flipped approaches might build in the space we need for more feed-forward. Fresh thinking around curriculum design might offer better opportunities for peer feedback.
But if feedback is truly to be approached as a dialogue, then the single most important precondition is for there to be dialogue about feedback. We need sustained dialogue not only between lecturers and students but also, importantly, amongst ourselves. What do students and lecturers understand to be the purpose of feedback, and is there a disparity between the two? What would meaningful feedback look and feel like for students and staff, and how might we achieve that? What challenges and difficulties do students and staff face with respect to feedback, and how might they be overcome?
Vitally, as lecturers we also need to be empowered to make the changes necessary to bring about these dialogic approaches. We need to have a conversation about what it will take to make this happen (and the new EEF funded Birmingham Assessment Change Initiative is seeking to start this conversation). Time, resource, training? All are likely to be required. However, we may also need to challenge some of our assumptions and re-think some of our established ways of doing things if we want to make this repositioning of feedback an effective and long-lasting change.