Although the importance of meaningful feedback is well-known, one aspect of feedback that’s often overlooked is how students will use it once they receive it.
A recent review of 195 studies shows that how students engage with feedback is just as important as how it’s delivered. Lead author Dr. Naomi Winstone says that as a result of the heavy focus on giving high-quality feedback, the issues surrounding how learners understand and use feedback have been relatively neglected in research. “If we want feedback to have maximum impact on learners’ development, then how learners engage with and implement feedback is just as crucial as the quality and timing of the feedback itself,” she says. “No matter how high quality the feedback teachers provide, it will never have high impact unless we support learners to become ‘proactive recipients’ of feedback.”
So what can we do to help students become proactive recipients? Here are a few tips.
1. Understand the Barriers to Strong Engagement With Feedback
One reason feedback is often difficult to engage with, says Winstone, is the emotional reaction to it. “In many cases, feedback can seem like a threat to our self-esteem, and we often protect ourselves by limiting our engagement with the comments.”
In some of her previous research, Winstone and Dr. Rob Nash uncovered four main barriers to strong engagement with feedback:
- Awareness of what feedback means and what it’s for: Learners may have a limited understanding of the purpose of feedback or the language used.
- Knowledge of strategies by which the feedback could be implemented: We equip learners with many useful skills, but how often do we explicitly teach them how to use feedback?
- Agency to implement strategies: Feedback may not always feel achievable or worthwhile. For example, learners may feel that feedback on one piece of work has little relevance to another piece of work.
- Willingness to scrutinize feedback and implement strategies: Using feedback is hard. It requires a lot of effort to improve skills and techniques.
Once you understand these barriers, you’ll be able to structure your feedback so that it’s not only clear to the learner what needs to improve, but also what specific steps they should be taking and how this will benefit them in the future.
2. Help Students Develop the Skills to Use Feedback Well
Winstone says students often need support in developing the skills to engage with and implement feedback. She and Nash have identified four important skills, which they call “SAGE recipience skills.”
Self-appraisal: Students need to be able to appraise their own skills, strengths, and weaknesses.
Assessment literacy: Students need an understanding of standards and criteria so they know what a good piece of work looks like.
Goal setting: Students need the ability to set goals for themselves and monitor their progress toward achieving these goals.
Engagement and motivation: Students need the engagement and motivation to put in the hard work required to implement feedback.
Once students understand the importance of improving in a specific area, the motivation to improve will follow naturally, so start by providing clear examples of high-quality work and then give students a chance to reflect on their own work to see if there are areas that need improvement.
3. Provide Students Opportunities to Implement Feedback
In addition to helping students develop the skills to engage with feedback, it’s important to provide them with opportunities to use it.
Winstone says many teachers in the U.K. use Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time, which entails using classroom time to help learners put the feedback they receive into practice. During this time, students might redraft a section of their work using the comments they received or practice a particular skill they need to improve. Allocating classroom time to implementing feedback helps students recognize the importance of acting on feedback rather than just passively reading it.
4. Help Students See That Improvement Is Achievable
Although Winstone’s work focuses heavily on how feedback is used and implemented, she notes that there is still a place for well-crafted and encouraging feedback.
“When writing feedback, teachers can transmit subtle messages which may influence a learner’s engagement,” she says. “It’s important that learners receive the implicit or explicit message that improvement is achievable.” For example, instead of saying, “You’re repeatedly making the same errors. Reread chapter X in your textbook,” you could make the same feedback more encouraging by saying something like, “There are still some errors here, but I can tell you’re making progress in your understanding of this topic. Focus on X and you’ll soon be all the way there.”
Most importantly, though, remember that even the most specific and well-timed feedback cannot be effective if students don’t use it. So providing students with feedback is only the first step. We also need to motivate them to take ownership of their learning by equipping them with the skills necessary to engage with and implement that feedback.