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Case study: turning feedback into ‘feedforward’
21 May 2012
The line between helpful feedback that a student can learn from and well-meaning but overly detailed corrections is a thin one. Ele Cooper talks to Dr Rachel Rees about how she helped her teaching team to recognise the difference.
That its teachers are practising speech and language therapists is one of the biggest selling points of UCL's Department of Speech and Language Therapy – but, until recently, the range of staff backgrounds sometimes meant that students were receiving feedback on their work that varied widely in style and detail. In a bid to address this, Dr Rachel Rees (pictured), Lecturer and BSc Speech Sciences Programme Tutor, approached the UCL Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching (CALT) for advice. Dr Rosalind Duhs, one of CALT's two schools-facing teaching fellows for the School of Life and Medical Sciences (SLMS), specialises in assessment and feedback, and so she and Rees met to discuss how best to address the issue.
In the Department of Speech and Language Therapy, marking for any given piece of work tends to be shared between two or three members of staff, partly in a bid to give as many teaching fellows as possible experience in feedback and assessment. However, this was leading some students to comment that the feedback they were receiving was often noticeably different in style, detail and quantity.
Dr Rosalind Duhs says...
“It was very important to me that we should have a dialogue during the training session because feedback itself should involve a dialogue, especially on professional development courses. The basic problem was that the enormous enthusiasm of Rachel’s team meant that they were giving students too much feedback for any learner to absorb. I wanted them to be able to practise giving feedback during the session, so I presented the basic ideas and research, engaged the teaching fellows in a discussion for an hour and then left them to work together through different pieces of student work.
“The timeliness of feedback is terribly important because if you’ve just written a piece of work it will be very fresh in your mind and the comments will be more meaningful. Also, very often a student will be producing several pieces of work at a time and they really need the feedback to inform the production of the next piece of work, because after all the purpose of feedback is not to tell you how you did in the past, but to help you to do better in the future – which is why some people now call it ‘feedforward’.
“If other people around UCL want to develop in this area I really would urge them to contact CALT: we can help teachers to put in place an infrastructure that promotes student learning throughout a course via feedback on small pieces of work which inform both the student and the teacher on how they’re developing. We can tailor what we do to individual courses’ needs and hopefully improve the feedback process for everyone involved.”
Furthermore, Rees says, “Some of our exam questions are set by external lecturers who don't mark the papers themselves but also don't give very detailed crib answers. There aren't always clear marking criteria, which makes it difficult for our less-experienced markers, so Rosalind and I decided to run a training session.”
Somewhat unusually for a university, one of the greatest problems in Rees’s department was that some markers were giving too much feedback. “If you see a lot of marks on every page then it's easy to become despondent,” says Rees. “I think that it's much better to say some really positive things and then just pick out one or two things that the student really needs to focus on. If you pull out too many issues they're unlikely to work on any of them.”
Following the initial meeting, Duhs designed a tailor-made training session for the teaching fellows in order to explain the main purposes of feedback and explore the best ways of giving it, working closely with Rees to ensure it was suitable for UCL's Speech and Language Therapy courses.
“We decided that the main points to make were firstly not to write too much because that can be off-putting for students, and secondly that staff should look for patterns rather than correcting multiple parts of a script,” explains Rees. In other words, if a student is commonly doing something wrong or misunderstanding something which leads to a thread of errors through the entire piece of work, the markers should try and identify the main problem, commenting on that in the summary sheet, and just pick out one or two examples of where this occurs in the script, rather than correcting every single example of it.
Rees says, “One thing I learned from Rosalind during that day is that there are myriad resources that we can point students towards to learn about writing styles. Often in the feedback we might say something like, 'You need to make sure your essay is argument-led rather than study-led,' and now we can tell them where they can read up on how to do it well.” This applies to theory too – if a student is getting something wrong, they are far more likely to get it right next time if they have to go and find out what they should have done themselves than if a teacher simply corrects the error on the script. This helps to turn feedback into what some are calling ‘feedforward’ – information that, instead of merely telling a student where they went wrong in the past, enables them to do better in the future.
However, while the teaching fellows were very enthusiastic and receptive to the training, some were sceptical about limiting the amount of corrections in cases where students were going seriously wrong. “They argued that if a student is on a professional studies course and writes something that's either blatantly wrong or very bad practice in a case report, not correcting it is tantamount to saying that what they've done is ok,” says Rees. “It is tricky to get the balance right, but we agreed that if something was factually wrong, we would certainly note that on the essay.”
In most cases in the department, work gets marked by one experienced and one less-experienced marker. They will then discuss how and why they marked the work in the way they did as a kind of training. This has been so successful that Rees is sometimes approached by lecturers from other departments for advice. In general, she says that if people are looking to either get a grounding in feedback and assessment or hoping to introduce some more innovative methods, she would advise them to explore the resources available on the Teaching and Learning Portal, contact CALT, and also talk to someone within their discipline about how to make what they’re doing subject-appropriate.
“Feedback to students is vital,” Rees says. “We don't always have time to give feedback on drafts, but you can use different methods – we do a lot of peer evaluation, where students can feedback to each other in the tutorial.”
Moodle is also a useful tool for communicating with students, says Rees. “I sometimes think that talking to students in online forums is the best way of teaching them. They’re definitely learning as much in that process as they are coming to lectures or workshops, because they ask the sorts of questions that reveal to me what they have and haven't understood, then we have a conversation about it.”
Using a range of assessment methods (rather than just one or two) is widely held to be important, and the Department of Speech and Language Therapy adheres to this principle. As well as exams, it requires students to make clinical presentations, write case reports, participate in vivas, and have their work placements assessed. This benefits the students more than if they were simply sitting exams, says Rees.
“In the second year, students receive oral feedback on their practice clinical presentation and they can draw on that feedback in their subsequent assessed presentation; they get written feedback on all of their clinical reports, and these follow the same format each year so they can get better at those as well; I also think the viva is important because it allows the student to demonstrate a range of clinical skills too wide to realistically showcase in one written piece – it demonstrates their understanding of the whole role of the therapist, not just the cases aspect. However, it is important to have exams as well, in order to check their application of the theory in another way.”
The training session between Duhs, Rees and the teaching fellows was done in the spring term of 2012, and Rees has already seen some exemplary marking from two members of staff who had very little prior experience of giving feedback.
Feedback comments made to students after the training session that utilise the principles outlined by Duhs:
Giving a good balance of specific positive and negative remarks:
“You have maintained confidentiality and provided some appropriate background information about the service you describe. It would have been useful to consider how the service operates within the context of the special educational needs code of practice.”
“You provide a mostly clear picture of the service, the demographics of the population it covers and the referral procedure. To be fully comprehensive, you also needed to describe the discharge criteria and give some information about how it is decided whether a child needs direct or indirect therapy.”
Using the feedback form to summarise a pattern on the script:
“Be careful with your wording: I have marked with an asterisk a few occasions in this section where you would benefit from using more professional and/or specific terminology.”
Specifying a resource that a student could use to improve an aspect of their work:
“There seems to be confusion in your understanding of hypotheses and aims (see Moodle documents on writing hypotheses and aims).”
Although feedback and assessment will never be entirely formulaic, there are some fundamental principles that will always apply. To learn more, visit the Assessment and Feedback pages of the Teaching and Learning Portal. If you would like to talk to CALT about how to apply these principles to your subject, contact one of the schools-facing teaching fellows for your department.
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