A lively conversation about feedback

Image by Naassom Azevedo from Pixabay

Earlier this year there was a lively conversation problematising feedback on the SEDA Jiscmail. (A suggestion about the need to problematise ‘problematising’ didn’t get very far. This time.)

The origins of the concept of ‘feedback’, in engineering, were acknowledged. Feedback in engineering takes the form of information about the extent to which the actual output of an engineering system matches the desired output. This feedback can be used to manage, regulate, govern, an input in order to bring the actual output more closely into line with the desired output. An early example is the governor on a steam engine. This regulates the steam flow into the cylinder(s) to make the engine turn at the desired speed, whether the engine need to work harder or less hard. If the student is the steam engine, and the output is the work they produce, then teacher as governor provides guidance on how the students should change what they are doing to achieve closer to the right output. More recently, the power supply for most electronic devices delivers a precise output voltage from any input voltage from around 100 to around 240 Volts. Not every teacher feels comfortable with such metaphors.

Also in engineering feedback can be the hideous or thrilling screech and howl that results when the microphone picks up and plays back into the amplifier the sound coming from a close-by loudspeaker. I don’t think anyone related this kind of feedback to the process of learning, although, to the heightened senses of a student, feedback can feel very loud, very intense, a fact which those of us who give feedback need to remember.

There were reservations about the idea of feedback as a simple, single act, in which the teacher tells the student what was right and wrong, good and bad, about their work, and therefore what the student should do the same and differently next time. This was seen as an exercise of power by the teacher, which of course it is. It is a power which derives from the teacher’s frequent role also as a holder of standards, as judge, as assessor. Correspondents found much more comfortable, congenial, the idea of feedback as a series of stages in continuing conversations, between teachers and students and also between students and students, the conversations which provide such a rich environment for learning. If the teachers have the time.

Students are sometimes much more interested in the marks and grades than in the feedback, although we should remember that a mark or grade is a very direct form of feedback, written in the language, the currency, of assessment, and therefore of great interest to students.

In some subjects, some activities, the feedback comes from the task itself, not from the views of someone else, the teacher. Surgery and aviation provide dramatic examples. It is good to help students to give themselves feedback on their own work, by the internalisation and application of explicit standards. Good also to help students to do this for and with each other, where they benefit from the giving as well as the receiving of feedback.

There was concern that students did not always recognise feedback as feedback, or, as discussed above, did not always value it. National Student Survey items 10 and 11, “Feedback on my work has been timely.” and “I have received helpful comments on my work.”,  give urgency to this concern.

It may be unhelpful to describe feedback as “formative assessment”, because of the understandable heavy baggage around assessment, judgement. Education, as well as a process of learning, is also in some measure of process of negotiation. Teachers do not simply impose standards. They, or at any rate the better ones, negotiate them, year by year, learning from the endless rolling conversation with their students, whether in class or online, whether explicit or through discussion of student work. These conversations also give teachers feedback on our own work, if we choose to listen.


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