Giving Meaningful Feedback

Giving meaningful feedback was the topic of a recent FLO Friday session, facilitated by Monica Morris. Monica’s experience in teaching and learning spans from course design to program implementation to instructor development and everything in between! She is currently an instructor at Camosun College who understands the pressure of the online pivot as well as the added challenge of providing meaningful feedback in the virtual environment. Based on the high registration and attendance for this session, we knew this topic was not only of interest but of importance too. 

Post by Helena Prins, advisor, Learning + Teaching, at BCcampus

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, feedback is “the transmission of evaluative or corrective information about an action, event, or process to the original or controlling source.” According to Shute (2008), feedback is intended to “modify students’ thinking or behaviour” for the “purpose of improving learning.

When asking her students at Camosun what great feedback might look like, Monica received answers such as timelybe positivebe objectivefocus on the assignment and not the persontell and show me how to improvedirectclear and concise, and the well-known sandwich method

Cartoon people stand side by side with talk bubbles above their heads. The bubbles read: 
Focus on the assignment, not the person.
Be positive.
Be objective.
Tell and show me how to improve.
Direct, clear and concise.

Her students’ preferences align quite well with two kinds of feedback:

  1. Directive feedback – that which states what needs to be fixed or revised and is quite specific. For example, editing materials, practice quizzes, asking students to include missing criteria in an assignment.
  2. Facilitative feedback – provides comments and suggestions to assist students in their own revision and conceptualization. For example, offering suggestions on an essay outline, having students present a dry-run presentation to peers, and self-assessing a project against a checklist or rubric.

An article by Buckingham and Goodall, titled “The Feedback Fallacy,” presented three widely accepted theories about feedback:

  • Theory of the source of truth: Other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses. 

Feedback: Tell the person what they are doing wrong. If you didn’t and the behaviour continued, that would be bad!

  • Theory of learning: Learning is like filling up an empty vessel. You are lacking what is needed, so I need to fill you up. 

Feedback: You lack certain abilities you need to acquire, so your instructor, peers should teach them to you. 

  • Theory of excellence: Great performance is universal, analyzable, and describable, and once defined, it can be transferred from one person to another. 

Feedback: Where you fall short of this ideal, you can strive to remedy your shortcomings. 

Monica explained that Buckingham and Goodall challenged these three truths by arguing the following: 

  • Theory of the source of truth – we are unreliable raters of other humans! As Buckingham and Goodall put it, “The only realm in which humans are an unimpeachable source of truth is that of their own feelings and experiences.”
  • Theory of learning – giving attention to our strengths catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.
  • Theory of excellence – excellent is idiosyncratic and not universal.

Monica then posed the following tricky question to the participants:

So, if we are unreliable sources of truth about others, and if people improve by having others notice their strengths, and if excellence is idiosyncratic…then how do we give feedback?

Monica offered the following suggestions for giving meaningful feedback:

  • Describe what you experienced when the moment of excellence caught your attention. 
  • Recognize excellence in people and play to their strengths. Guide them to see what excellence looks like for them. 
  • Consider the present, past, future… The person provides their own feedback. Questions to the student might be, “Tell me what you are currently thinking and doing about the assignment. What is working for you now with the assignment? (present) What has worked for you in the past? (past) What could you utilize in the future? (future).

She provided some concrete examples:

Instead of…Try…
I need to give you some feedback.Here’s my reaction to your assignment, test, project.
Well done! Your assignment is excellent!Here are three things that really worked for me.
Here’s what I think you should do.Take a look at the peer assessments. Is the feedback consistent with your own thoughts and ideas, and mine? How do you want to proceed?
Your example does not align with the concept I presented in class.The example you presented in our class discussion warrants a closer look. Can you align the specifics of the example to the concept presented? I am not seeing an alignment, but I want to hear your ideas.
Your presentation of [concept] was not clear.Here’s exactly where your assignment/project/presentation started to lose me.
The content in this project is interesting, although it only minimally meets expectations as there were several typos. The assignment appeared sloppy.I noticed you can communicate your ideas in an articulate and engaging manner when you present them orally. Would you like to present your next assignment orally?
This assignment is much different from previous assignments you have submitted.I noticed your assignment is not written to the same calibre as I have seen in previous assignments. How did you approach this assignment? Did you approach it in the same way as previous assignments?
This group paper was not presented in a cohesive manner. Many ideas were repeated throughout the paper, and the style of writing changed in each section.As I read through your assignment, I noticed several concepts were repeated, and it felt like I was reading five different papers instead of a group project.

Monica also asked her students how they would like to receive feedback and was surprised many of them said they would like to get feedback orally, as part of a conversation with her. Some asked for both written and oral. What you choose to do may depend on the size of your class. For example, it may not be realistic to have an individual conversation with all 100 students in your class, but you could create an oral overview of feedback for the whole group. Time management is key here, and perhaps a topic for another FLO Friday session!

Monica shared how the rubric tool in D2L has saved her a lot of time. Students have also responded positively to the audio message she attaches to their grades. It provides the “personal touch” that many of them are missing during this specific time of physical distancing. Even though recording your comments via audio or video tools makes for a longer grading process, and no direct impact on students’ performance has been recorded yet, students did report that they found the feedback to be more personal and detailed. The recording can perhaps capture the encouragement, empathy, and optimism that might not be as easily conveyed in text only. One participant suggested another way to give meaningful audio/video feedback is to display the student’s work on the screen, then record a screencast of yourself narrating and annotating the page.

Monica provided a few additional examples of feedback that takes the present into the future and gives students information on how to improve their performance:

This time…Next time…
I noticed a few grammatical errors and typos. This is an area I think you can improve on throughout this course.Ensure your work is well proofread. Please reach out to the Writing Centre at [link].
Many of the criteria were not evident in this assignment. Please refer to the rubric to see which criteria were either omitted or minimally addressed in this draft assignment.Before submitting your final assignment, please consult the checklist, the example, and the rubric provided to ensure all criteria are evident. If you have questions about my feedback, please make an appointment to discuss the assignment with me.
In the dry-run, I found the information presented on [concept] to be clear and informative. I was engaged during the interactive activity, although I found the introduction somewhat confusing.During the interactive component of your presentation, I noticed many students had questions about how to start the activity. I have found that putting the instructions on a PPT slide rather than simply stating them orally has supported students as they start an interactive activity.
On the practice quiz, all the answers were correct, but I was unable to award full marks as the steps taken to arrive at the answers were not recorded.When responding to any question, be sure to show your work and record the formula.

When participants were asked about the effective strategies they are using when they provide feedback to students, many responded that they ask their students how they would like to receive feedback. Some facilitators embrace ungrading, team-based learning, and peer-to-peer feedback. One participant suggested filling out a rubric with your student, while someone else suggested students are asked to grade themselves first. 

It was interesting, too, to note the responses to effective feedback strategies also included facilitators asking for feedback from their students. As one participant noted, “By asking students for feedback, we provide them with a learning opportunity to know how to provide and receive feedback.” Another important ingredient for meaningful feedback is trust. Students may be more open to receive feedback when there is a trust relationship with the instructor. 

This was Monica’s first time facilitating a FLO session, and she reflected on the experience as “a wonderful opportunity to engage with my peers on the important role we play as providers of feedback to our students. Sharing our experience, noticing our students’ strengths, and recognizing the uniqueness of excellence are some of the ways that we can provide meaningful feedback to our students.” 

Want to learn more about feedback and facilitation? Here are a few resources to explore:

  • Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153–189.
  • – a powerful TED talk on building confidence through feedback
  • Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
  • Small Teaching Online (Chapter 5: Giving Feedback) by Flower Darby with James Lang

If you missed the FLO Friday session on Meaningful Feedback, you can watch the recording and see the slides here.

You can also register for our next FLO Friday happening on March 12 with Olaolu Adeleye, who is going to talk about the importance of creating inclusive spaces online with specific consideration for student diversity. Register now!

Join the BCcampus Book Club for Small Teaching Online starting in April. Register here.

The feature image for this post (viewable in the BCcampus News section at the bottom of our homepage) is by mentatdgt from Pexels