Assignments, Grading Tips, Reflective Practice

Rethinking Feedback: Engaging An Ongoing Learning Process

Leaves Water Ripple. Image by Gerd Altmann. Pixabay.

By Atasi Das

It’s November and the end of semester is steadily approaching. You may be in the midst of giving or grading midterms or preparing students for finals. This time of the semester is an especially opportune time to reapproach the concept of feedback.  

As educators and learners, we are used to thinking about feedback as evaluative comments given by an educator to a student. However, feedback can also be a reflexive and iterative approach to processes of teaching and learning.

Here are several issues regarding feedback I hope to reconsider:

  • How can educators give feedback in more varied ways?
  • Feedback is intentionally and unintentionally shared with students and can also be given by and received from students. What do we as educators need in order to recognize that feedback happens beyond what is written? 
  • How can feedback build upon past feedback in a way that is not punitive–that is instead reparative and develops multiple learning opportunities?

Many educators acknowledge that learners approach course content from a range of life and schooling experiences. Relatedly, some educators have taken great efforts to recognize this and reassess curricula we use to teach. This could mean that we elevate particular histories, texts, pedagogies, and voices in our courses (here’s a great workshop on Decolonizing Pedagogy from the Teach@CUNY Institute to provide clarification.) Even still, for many of us, we question: How can we get to know what students are understanding and how we can support these efforts? The email exchange below offers insight into ways feedback can be repositioned and expanded. In this exchange, we discuss:

a) how to respond to students constructively in terms of the best way to follow up with students after they have had a quiz.

b) how to give feedback that provides multiple entry points to sense-making with the material, i.e. prompts students to re-engage with content they struggled with initially.

c) ways to carve out a variety of forms to feedback even in situations where the formal assessment types are set by someone else.

Dear TLC Staff,

I just finished Week 5 (wow!) of teaching this semester, and I’d love some advice/suggestions/wisdom about the best way to do test corrections. 

I recently gave a quiz that was made by the course coordinator and meant to be standard across sections, although I was given some flexibility to modify it. I added questions that, in my opinion, were easy points (in an effort to combat the “weeder”/ harsh-grading nature of this course). My quiz average was ~54%, which I feel quite upset about, although I did learn that this is approximately the same average across all sections. 

Nonetheless, I’d like to give my students the chance to do quiz corrections, and I’ve heard different strategies, such as re-doing the quiz in pairs, writing explanations for why they answered incorrectly, and why the correct answer is right, etc. I’m not sure what is the most effective for their learning, so I’d love any advice or suggestions you have.

Thanks so much!

Dear Educator,

It is great to hear from you. Yes, these are great ideas for revisions to quizzes. I wonder in your assessment if you think there was a common student misunderstanding. I forget if your class is only meeting online or if there were some in-person meetings.

In any case, sometimes I like to print out a copy of the quiz to assess different kinds of issues that could be happening.

Is it a matter of the wording and access to a particular question? 

Is there one question that was commonly missed? 

Could it be a matter of difficulty with standardized test-taking strategies (like using a process of elimination or when responses having one term that makes the entire answer incorrect)? 

Or is it a conceptual issue that needs clarification? 

What are other ways they could practice and develop their understanding of this concept (ie. through a graphic/image representation, audio recording how they might explain a concept to an elder or younger)? 

It could be useful to ask students (during class time via a poll or as part of revision/re-take time) to reflect on their experience of taking this quiz.

I also like the idea of having students work in pairs. You might want pairs to take some time to first reflect on the process/construction of the quiz together and do some collective analysis on their questions/answers. It could be helpful to provide prompts. (I notice…. If I were to reword this question, it would…etc.) You can then have students revise the incorrect responses that include some insight (ie. a note for each revision) on their developing understanding of the concept or how they would approach this kind of question again. 

One other thing to keep in mind (considering that you shared that 54% was a typical result across all of the sections) is that the creation/construction and therefore collective outcome on this quiz may be an unstated objective of the test. We can talk about this more if you are interested. 

Please let me know if you would like to meet during office hours at any time. I’d be more than happy to continue thinking through strategies with you.

I realized that this email exchange itself and dialogue is another example of feedback as part of an iterative and reflexive learning process. My intention was that in asking questions and sharing concerns, I am engaging in and offering feedback. What students may benefit from most is to simply engage in dialogue and wonder with or alongside professors, peers, and colleagues.

Many of us have experienced receiving feedback from educators in the form of probing questions, sharp reactions, corrections, and comments among other forms. In commonplace practice, feedback is generally positioned in a unidirectional, evaluatory format (value-laden) constituted of information (often qualitative comments) given to a student from an educator, or to an educator from a supervisor. I look at the Teach@CUNY handbook and consider this articulation of feedback: 

the qualitative evaluation given on work that’s either in progress or has been completed. The most effective feedback is formative, as it helps the evaluated reflect upon their work and to imagine ways to continue to improve or refine it going forward.” 

I also think of how feedback relates to the email exchange: an extrapolation from quantity (in the form of quiz average) to the quality of classroom learning and teaching. Questions arise: Who is receiving feedback? How can feedback be elicited or given? It seems apparent that this educator is seeking a way to facilitate student understanding in the context of standardized and punitive measures to learning. The instructor was obligated to give a quiz and sensed that that quiz was designed to intimidate students. The class average is a form of feedback to the instructor. Scores and numbers can set off an array of anxiety-laden responses compelling an educator to ask: Is it me? Are my students not doing enough? How can I support them? What do these scores say about me as an educator? Am I failing?

Despite the constraints of their particular class, this instructor does have options that tie into the questions I posed earlier:

  • How can educators give feedback in more varied ways?
    • This instructor can offer students several ways (as noted in our email exchange) of “re-doing” their quiz that give greater weight to the process of thinking through the problems
  • Beyond formal written feedback, what are ways that feedback occurs informally in the classroom, intentionally and unintentionally shared with students and also provided by students to the instructor? 
    • The instructor noted that mandatory assessment punitively classifies learners and was seeking ideas to develop greater autonomy and a constructive learning dynamic between teacher, student and course objectives.
  • How can feedback build upon past other feedback in a way that is not punitive – that is instead reparative and develops multiple learning opportunities?
    • Revisions and test corrections can provide an opportunity for students to work collaboratively, making learning a collective endeavor. It also reiterates that learning is a process and that following up on work they’ve struggled with and continuing to engage with material they found challenging. 

Considering all of this: what would it mean for our pedagogy and our craft if we “opened up” our understanding, positioning, and use of feedback? What if feedback was recognized as multidirectional and multifaceted–formative information not only from educator to student but between student and educator and/or between students? Feedback, in whatever form, can be an invitation to the educator to listen intentionally, to inquire about what is unspoken, and to recognize the impacts of current (COVID and otherwise) reality. Feedback could still be written commentary on the margins of student papers. But feedback could also be student silence to particular prompts during class. Feedback could also be recognized when there is an increase of student voice via real-time polls or quick takes. Feedback could be an invitation to follow up and advance our inquiries. If we broaden our conception of it, feedback could truly be a starting point in an ongoing learning process–one facet in a multidimensional relationship between everyone in any classroom.

Atasi Das is a doctoral candidate in the Urban Education Program.

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