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Why ongoing student feedback is important to learning outcomes

Do students receive enough feedback on their performance to guide their learning and achieve the grades we expect of them? Pose the same question to different stakeholders in the education ecosystem - student, educator, administrator - and you’re likely to get different answers.

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer

Do students receive enough feedback on their performance to guide their learning and achieve the grades we expect of them? Pose the same question to different stakeholders in the education ecosystem - student, educator, administrator - and you’re likely to get different answers.

Educators may not give a straightforward response when thinking about what feedback they’d ideally like to give, versus the practical realities of teaching within their institution. In fact, the prospect of delivering more feedback for students amidst their heavy workloads may seem untenable. Students, you’ll find, support the idea of receiving more feedback on their work given the opportunity, and it has important ramifications for the future of assessment.

With the pandemic-induced shift to online education delivery still fresh in our memory, most educators are now practitioners of formative assessment, which became critical in virtual classrooms to support learners and scaffold and measure learning. Can institutions continue to build on this flexible, student-centred approach to assessment and feedback, and what are the benefits of doing so?

As institutions think long-term about hybrid environments, the transformation of student feedback is among the most promising developments. In this article, we’ll explore how more frequent, better quality and targeted feedback supported by technology can benefit both students and educators alike, towards improved learning outcomes.

Why does ongoing student feedback matter?

It’s a frustrating scenario for educators when they carefully prepare lesson plans and dedicate time to honing instruction, only to find it’s not enough to combat patterns of mediocre or poor performance amongst students. Sadly, this disconnect between teaching and student understanding is not uncommon, and the presence or absence of feedback throughout the learning journey can influence its likelihood. By restricting feedback to that which is summative, occurring only after assessable tasks, and without an opportunity for students to ‘safely fail’ in a formative, low stakes environment, students may be left underprepared for high stakes assessments or exams. And this risk is multiplied in remote, online settings.

Most, if not all educators would like to believe that the frequency and quality of their feedback is enough to support students, but is that always the case? In her 2019 study of first-year university students’ engagement with feedback, Alina Georgeta Mag concluded that “even if teachers are convinced that they give enough and appropriate feedback, the students have different perceptions”. The limitations of educator guesswork on what feedback is needed most and precisely when it’s needed, is behind the premise of ‘just-in-time’ feedback to elevate teaching impact.

Some key aims of just-in-time and ongoing feedback are as follows:

  • Anchor students along the learning journey to reduce learning gaps and those ‘left behind’
  • Enable students to self-correct learning gaps before high-stakes assessment when it’s too late
  • Identify possible shortcomings in teaching practice or course coverage
  • Close the feedback loop by validating if a concept or task is understood before moving on
  • Expose students to the collaborative nature of learning and feedback they’ll encounter in later life

Student agency in feedback

What do students really want from feedback and how do educators know if what they provide is hitting the mark? In academic settings where a one-way feedback loop takes precedence (educators supplying feedback to students and not the other way around), are educators able to accurately determine this prior to summative assessment? Research has shown that limited exposure to robust feedback or ‘feed forward’ from their educator(s) corresponds to fewer expectations or requests for it amongst students, meaning that students can suffer knowledge gaps in silence rather than seek out the feedback they desire or need.

Considering educators spend a great deal of time and energy in their attempts to boost student morale and participation, this student disempowerment is far from ideal, and steers institutions towards the premise of student-led feedback to bolster teaching and learning methods. John Hattie’s advice for educators to “think of feedback that is received, not given” is especially relevant here, but what does this actually mean? Well, it involves a bit of a mindset shift in educators and some humility, to view student satisfaction with feedback as a crucial predictor of success. In the traditional feedback model, educators dictate what is and isn’t appropriate feedback, and you may be wondering: shouldn’t they know best?

At the end of the day, the most well-reasoned feedback is rendered useless if it doesn’t make sense to students and help inform next steps in learning. And the most accurate way to figure out if ‘given’ feedback is fully ‘received’, is if students can contribute to the feedback loop to highlight learning gaps and prompt educators to revise their coverage of learning content.

Remember that hierarchies exist in education which set the tone for student and educator interactions, so for a strategy of two-way dialogue to work, opportunities for feedback must be systemically applied and encouraged. Imagining a better approach to feedback in reference to the Philippines K-12 context, a report from the Assessment Curriculum and Technology Research Centre (ACTRC) suggests what’s needed: “It would involve empowering the students to take initiative in asking questions, getting feedback from the students, and even saying when they do not understand. It is important for teachers to engineer environments that facilitate open communication and support the learning process.”

Mutual benefit for students and educators

Progress with student-oriented feedback means rejecting the assumption that formative feedback is too complicated to deliver or too subjective and disruptive to educator-student dynamics. It also means being open to change in best practice. Some education models in the Asia-Pacific region have not traditionally subscribed to feedback methods outside of summative feedback, opting to evaluate student knowledge and inspire student motivation differently. Nonetheless, even for academic cultures with resistance to ongoing or formative feedback throughout a unit or course, benefits of this approach can still be seen.

Consider Daragh Hayes’ 2008 study on feedback from students about teaching methods at a Japanese university, which sought to measure the impact of ongoing feedback on classroom practice. By deploying three student evaluation instruments for the duration of one year, researchers noted “changes in learner self-reflection and more proactive approaches to goal setting on the part of many students.” Simply by reflecting on what an educator did well and perhaps not so well, it triggered more ownership of learning on behalf of students. The study also pointed to the concurrent value for educators in understanding the effectiveness of their own teaching and to revise lessons where needed “as a means of addressing pedagogical mismatch in the classroom.”

A two-way flow of feedback, or feedback dependencies, if you will, appears to strengthen both students’ and educators’ contributions to successful learning outcomes. Indonesia is a good example of a traditionally summative-driven and grade-oriented academic model that is steadily embracing ongoing, formative-based feedback via the help of technology. In a 2021 study on technology-enhanced formative assessment in higher education, educators described it as “an essential activity to elicit the information of the students’ progress in learning and to motivate and engage them in learning”. An area for improvement was identified in their neglect to harness feedback as a method of self-reflection for their own teaching instruction.

Technology’s role in streamlining feedback

If educators and institutions are to commit to greater feedback opportunities to scaffold students’ learning, use of technology is critical to its success. Incorporating technology-assisted feedback presents logistical and even ideological challenges - particularly in the context of digital divides in South East Asia - but once educators overcome the learning curve, education technology offers precious time savings, and a chance to maximise the impact of their teaching.

Evidence of this is found in a 2021 study in which John Hattie teamed up with Turnitin researchers to examine feedback that leads to improvement in student essays. Using both high school and university data in the form of 3,204 student essays submitted through Turnitin Feedback Studio, results were gathered following the initial submission, receipt of feedback, and resubmission of essays to generate final scores. The authors discovered that ‘where to next’ feedback was most powerful, and that “the use of a computer-aided system of feedback augmented with teacher-provided feedback does lead to enhanced performance over time.”

By combining educators’ pedagogical expertise with the power of technology (including artificial intelligence and machine learning), educators are in a position to generate more intuitive, real time feedback to better support students, backed by data insights. From an institutional perspective, increased educator productivity to do more in less time and greater fulfilment of learning objectives, makes for happier students and educators, which is becoming increasingly important for student and educator retention in an increasingly globalised education system.

Ultimately, embedding ongoing feedback is an important step forward for both schools and universities. It serves to improve the student and educator experience, yielding more meaningful student learning and ownership of that learning in support of those coveted higher grades and confidence in their professional futures.