in search of feedback

Feedback: it’s a slippery little eel to capture.  In Universities, students are always keen to know how they’re doing – in fact, lack of feedback is a common complaint about ‘the student experience’.  This means it can become a millstone around the necks of academics, who tend to cop the flak.  But what do we really mean when we say we want feedback?  Actually, what do we need from it?

My academic colleagues suspect that students may look only at the mark their efforts are awarded: if it’s good, they ‘don’t need to’ do anything different and if it’s bad, they’re so demotivated they ‘don’t want to’!  Cue much head-scratching in the ivory towers over how to give something that’s more meaningful and genuinely helpful.

The logistical challenge alone is pretty intimidating.  Tutors lucky enough to specialise in niche areas that only have a few students on board can probably turn around essay marks pretty quickly – in between preparing for other lectures, doing their research, participating in meetings and completing their long list of administrative chores, of course.  But what if you have 400 students taking your assignments  and sitting your exams?  How can feedback for the masses be both efficient and constructive?

There’s a great variety of methods in use, generally involving creativity right from the outset when the course is designed.  Building in self-tests and muliple choice quizzes, generating discussion in seminars, organising activities to work in pairs and groups, and using formal peer assessment are all common ways to help people test their progress along the way.  Technology contributes too – virtual learning environments, online polls and text voting, forums and discussion boards – but good, old-fashioned methods like annotating work and face-to-face discussion are still being put to good use, too.  A colleague of mine has recently been given a Feedback paddle, to make sure students know when they’re getting it.  Thanks to Lindy for providing the picture of this genius tool. 

Useful, practical tool to alert students when you're giving feedback

Need help indicating when you're providing feedback? Try one of these nifty tools!

One thing that really helps is having an open mind.  That’s useful in most circumstances, but in this case it enables us to take notice of different kinds of feedback that we get every day.  After all, useful information about our strengths and weaknesses isn’t just about percentages or grades and it doesn’t have to come from people with a string of letters after their name.  Do people smile or nod when you’re talking?  Do friends turn to you for advice?  Is it always you who organises the best get-togethers?  What kind of compliments do you get?  Are your texts and emails answered promptly?  All these are forms of positive feedback and you should give yourself a pat on the back when they happen (self-feedback’s important too!)

As for how you can give feedback to others, here are my top 5 ideas:

  1. don’t be shy of giving compliments.  If you think something is clever, cool or classy then you should say so
  2. when it’s bad news, aim to be constructive – instead of saying what’s wrong, explain what would be better
  3. honesty is the best policy but tact and diplomacy go a long way. Thinking about how you’d feel is a good step towards finding the best way to express yourself
  4. remember to include the positives as well as any negatives you need to mention, so you’re giving a balanced view
  5. consider what you want to achieve. If giving feeback will help you, the other person or those around you, then it’s probably worth the effort to find the words

 Still worried about maybe upsetting people with your feedback or not making yourself clear?  I recommend a book called “Difficult Conversations” by Anne Dickson and for a quick fix here’s another post with great tips Giving Constructive Feedback – For Dummies.  And then you can give ME some feedback on the blog…as long as it’s constructive!


1 Comment

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One response to “in search of feedback

  1. David Winter

    Hi Alexandra

    Thoughtful piece. Getting good feedback is such an important part of self-awareness for both students and for us practitioners.

    I often find it useful to think about the Theory of Planned Behaviour when considering feedback (

    Behavioural attitudes – Does the feedback relate to something this person really wants and believes in?
    Normative attitudes – Am I the best person to give this feedback, or would it be more appropriate coming from someone else (or just more people)?
    Control attitudes – Do they believe that they can change and will they know how to do it?

    What’s a feedback paddle? We must see pictures.

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