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Feedback: Bad problems and good problems

Posted on: September 27, 2016

Formative feedback: It is a pillar that upholds learning. Without it a student gets grades and the learning stops. Why? The student does not know what exactly went wrong or right, and why. As a result, that student does not reflect and change strategies.

Ideally the feedback is meaningful and timely. For feedback to be meaningful, the student needs to know: Why is this important? How do I make sense of it? For it to be timely, the student wants to know: How soon can you give it to me? Am I ready to receive it?

Trying to provide feedback that answers these questions is a big problem for any educator. The problem has a bad side and a good one.

The first thing an expert forgets is what is it like to struggle with learning.

Feedback is often given from the point of view of an expert who cannot remember what it was like to struggle with learning. This creates a disconnect.

An educator trying to provide good feedback will also realise that quality soon leads to quantity. This could be in terms of time spent with individuals, or the amount of written or otherwise recorded feedback.

Both these problems stem from the fact that traditional grading and feedback depends on an audience of one — the teacher. The students write for one person, and that person has to be director, manager, applauding audience member, performance critic, publicist, and popcorn seller.

There is far too much for one person to do and too little time to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

Some might point to the future of artificial intelligence (AI). Already some AI can fool very educated academics into thinking that another expert gave them feedback.

However, most teachers need solutions now. Not solutions like robots that scan bubble sheets or testing programmes that tally answers. Those tend to be summative, relatively quick, and as they involve grades, may not focus on learning.

Current technologies for providing feedback on written work (like Google Docs, Kaizena, JoeZoo) or performances (like video capture and annotation) require an investment in time.

Again, there is far too much for one person to do and too little to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

The problem presents opportunities. These are good problems and I present them as questions.

  • How might our learners be more peer-driven and collaborative?
  • How can we be more open so that other experts contribute to the process?
  • How might the tasks be more authentic or otherwise more representative of the wider world?
  • How do we filter noise from signal?

If there is power in peer teaching, then the same could be said about peer assessment. While learners do not have the same content expertise or thinking ability as an expert, they are cognitively closer to each other than the teacher is to them. They will use language and examples in ways that a teacher cannot.

Opening up assessments to a wider audience also places peer pressure on learners. The wider audience could include other educators and experts in the field.

If your students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they are sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough.

So far the suggestions operate in the classroom and academic bubble. Step outside of it and consider what happens in social media and YouTube: Feedback is constant, brief, brutally honest, occasionally pleasant, but always real. It can be messy and the learner has to decide what is important to take in and what to ignore.

Even before a student leaves school or university, he or she is already operating outside that bubble. When they eventually leave, they will spend even more time there. They are learning how to operate in the social media and YouTube world largely without the benefit of the teacher. Their audience of potentially many is missing that audience of one.

Why are we not using strategies that already work outside our bubble? What is holding some of us back from embracing the new normal in the wider world? What is more important: Our fears or our learners?


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