MicroCPD: The Purpose of Feedback and How to Close the Feedback Loop

Ben Costello discusses how to optimise the feedback process.

Effective feedback enables and facilitates students to act on their feedback. Without the right sort of feedback, the comments that students receive serve only as information. The feedback we provide to students needs to be presented in a way that enables them to enact that feedback – that is, to learn from their previous work and to develop/improve their academic and professional skills. Using feedback to inform and improve future work is paramount to closing what is sometimes called the ‘feedback loop’. 

Focussing on summative assessments, one way of conceptualising the feedback loop is to understand the process thus: 

  1. Staff set an assignment with reference to the module’s learning objective(s). This enables students to firmly place the assignment within the module and understand its relevance to their studies.
  2. Students plan and then write their assignment, where possible consulting previous feedback and/or seeking support (from staff or support services) to continue their academic development. This informs their current assignment.
  3. Once submitted, staff provide feedback — both quantitative (via a mark) and qualitative (via comments on a feedback sheet). Providing good qualitative feedback involves leaving comments on, for instance:
    1. what the student did well (to highlight what the student should continue to do);
    2. what they could have done to improve their assignment (focussing on a particular area/issue in their assignment to show how it could have been improved/addressed and why this is beneficial); and
    3. areas to focus/improve on in future assignments (how the student can develop their skills and improve future work).
    4. After receiving this feedback, students interpret and engage with the comments.
    5. When a new assignment is set, students consult previous feedback and enact it to positively impact on how they approach/undertake their new assignment. To close a particular feedback loop, on their assignment cover sheet students can evidence how they have attempted to act on previous feedback and can open a dialogue with their assessor to ask them for direct comments on areas in which they would like feedback. This helps to ensure that feedback is bespoke to each student and addresses areas in which the student would like to receive comments (in addition to staff leaving other feedback).

This feedback loop is an iterative and continual process involving both staff and students; the cycle continues with each new assignment. 

It is also helpful to differentiate between what the organisational theorist Chris Argyris calls ‘single-loop learning’ and ‘double-loop learning’ and apply this to student feedback. Single-loop learning focusses on a particular problem, area, or assignment (e.g. misunderstanding an author, the structure of the assignment, or a particular assignment respectively). Double-loop learning is additive and involves evaluating how that problem, area, or assignment was addressed. Single-loop learning is therefore useful for correcting particular errors, but due to this learning being limited to a particular problem area it is not conducive to ensuring improvements are made at the macro-level (i.e. a student improving across modules and/or years of study instead of just in a particular assignment or module). This is why double-loop learning is vital to the feedback cycle. This type of learning allows students to continually re-evaluate the principles behind the need to address particular areas and, importantly, develop the skills and know-how to address these in future work. Closing a particular feedback loop is important for tackling specific areas, but allowing this cycle to continue and thereby create a continuing and cyclical feedback loop facilitates improvement beyond a particular assignment is even more crucial. 

Those students who understand the importance of closing the feedback loop and who are equipped with the ability to (and who do) act on their feedback develop a range of skills, including how to: interpret feedback, forward-plan, adapt their writing approach, identify problem areas, refine their academic and professional skills, and so on. It is the engagement of students that has driven a shift towards a new feedback paradigm that includes students in the feedback process.

Feedback

(Figure from Winstone and Carless, 2019, p.9)

Our task as educators is show students that they can be the agent of their own change by taking a proactive approach to their own learning. As well as providing timely and effective feedback to students, we must equip students with the motivation, opportunity, and means to address and act on their feedback. This starts by ensuring that the feedback we provide to students facilitates this new paradigm.

Reading:

Boud, D. and Molloy, E. (2013) ‘Rethinking models of feedback for learning: The challenge of design’. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38(6), pp. 698–712.

Hepplestone, S. et al. (2011) ‘Using technology to encourage student engagement with feedback: a literature review’. Research in Learning Technology, 19(2). 

Irons, A. (2008) Enhancing learning through formative assessment and feedback. London: Routledge. 

Nicol, D. (2010) ‘From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education’. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), pp. 501–517. 

Watson, S. (2003) ‘Closing the Feedback Loop: Ensuring Effective Action from Student Feedback’. Tertiary Education and Management, 9(2), pp. 145–157. 

Williams, J. (2011) ‘9 - Action and the feedback cycle’, in Nair, C. S. and Mertova, P. (eds) Student Feedback: The Cornerstone to an Effective Quality Assurance System in Higher Education. Oxford: Chandos Publishing, pp. 143–158. 

Winstone, N. and Carless, D. (2019) Designing Effective Feedback Processes in Higher Education: A Learning-Focused Approach. Milton: Routledge. Available at: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/bham/detail.action?docID=5802479

Winstone, N. E. (2020) Feedback Practice in Higher Education. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor & Francis Group. 

Further Resources:

HEFi offers a number of courses related to assessment and feedback, including: Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Assessment and Feedback (ILT004); Introduction to Teaching and Supporting Learning (ITSL); and Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE). For more information on these courses, visit https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/university/hefi/staff-development/index.aspx.