How can universities improve their feedback processes?

We all know from our own experiences that in order to make the most of a learning opportunity, whether it’s at school, university or in the workplace, feedback is essential. However, it’s not just feedback in itself that’s important but how, when and why it’s delivered. Research indicates that this seems to be where things get a little unstuck and some students feel they are not getting what they need. 

The purpose of feedback

To reflect on how feedback processes can be improved, it’s worth remembering why we do it in the first place. It’s essential purpose is to encourage, to help an individual to develop their capabilities and help them to perform better in their area of study. Therefore, feedback can be a combination of praise and advice, debate, conversation and discussion. 
However, in one study it was found that 15% of students found feedback  to be ‘upsetting’.  It’s understandable why that might be to some extent, but while part of the process may be about learning to take constructive criticism, as educators, what can we learn from this to make feedback feel more helpful than critical?

It’s not a one-way flow of information

One misconception about feedback is that it’s a one way flow of information from the academic to the student. In some cases it seems like it’s about justifying a grade, for example. Short of factual inaccuracies, feedback can be more of a basis for discussion, clarifying where something wasn’t understood or understanding the thinking behind a hypothesis to develop it more successfully. It can even be an opportunity for educators to reflect on their own practices and see if there’s room for evolution or improvement.

It’s a process not an input 

Feedback isn’t an end point in our learning – it’s part of how we learn. Neither is it likely that feedback will be its most effective if it’s delivered as a one off. In many ways, at the point of higher education, feedback is not merely about facts, it’s more about the development of theories and perspectives. In that case, opinion can play a large role in it and one person’s feedback could be very different to another’s. With this in mind, there’s a strong argument for more than one academic being involved in that process (in many cases this is already done), and for a professor being one person rather than the main actor in the system.

Feedback is part of teaching

To some degree going to university involves a lot of self study and that is part of growing in independent learning capabilities. However, these are places where we go to learn and that’s about more than absorbing facts. While school exams might be about laying down timelines and foundational understandings, university is about developing our thinking as well as understanding advanced academics. Feedback is a fundamental part of that. The downside is that making it part of an ongoing process instead of an end point that marks success or failure, can be perceived to be adding to an academic’s workload. However, it’s more a question of building that time into the whole rather than adding more time, and the principle of a system, as mentioned above, can help with that.

Timing is everything

In many ways, feedback needs to not only be timely (i.e., an assignment should be returned promptly before another one), but it can also be part of the process on longer pieces of work, with input at different stages. This is typical for example on a dissertation and can help a student learn along the way, pushing themselves to the best of their ability and developing skills as they go.

There’s an enormous amount of research that continues to go into how we provide feedback at school, university and at work, and of course technological solutions add additional layers and opportunities to those processes. If you are a student and would like support in your academic career, contact us for more information about mentoring, interview preparation and Q&As with leading academics.