Developing Engagement with Feedback

Blanaid White is a lecturer in the School of Chemical Sciences


Think of a powerful piece of feedback you received – how did it make you feel? This was one of the first questions posed by Prof. Tansey Jessop at the recent Y1 feedback conference. The figure below, generated by those of us in the audience in response, illustrates the impact of our feedback.



Feedback has a huge impact on us – on our confidence, on our self-esteem, on our sense of identity. Equally, when we give feedback to our students, we are impacting their confidence and sense of identity. As educators, we are aware of this, and try to package our feedback to our students as constructively as possible, using techniques such as the “feedback sandwich”, in an attempt to protect our students from crushing responses. But as was highlighted by cognitive psychologist Dr. Naomi Winstone (“I like your hat – Your face is ugly – But your top is nice”), these well-intentioned strategies can backfire badly. Instead, in their inspirational keynotes, Naomi and Tansey challenged us to think differently about feedback. Instead of concentrating on developing strategies to deliver high quality, carefully designed feedback, we are challenged to consider that we should be focused on teaching students how to deal with feedback. We can be sure that as our students graduate from university and move into a wide variety of careers, they will continue to receive feedback. We can also be sure that at some stage in that journey, our graduates will receive poor quality feedback – perhaps poorly timed; or badly phrased; maybe even inappropriate. We cannot prevent this; we cannot protect our students from it. But we can teach them strategies to deal with this feedback. We can acknowledge that feedback can elicit a powerful emotive response, and that’s OK. We can be cognisant that dealing with that feedback immediately may not be optimal, and give students space until they are ready to deal with it. And when they are ready, we can teach students how to take our feedback and use it effectively.

One of the key tools we can use to teach our students how to deal with feedback is by using it as a scaffold to begin a dialogue with our students, a dialogue built on trust. In that dialogue, we can explore both the content details of the feedback, and the feedback process itself. We can help students contextualise our feedback, emphasising that some skills are constantly evolving, and will continue to evolve throughout our careers. We can reassure students that we don’t expect them to get an assignment fully right, but will support their development to make incremental improvements throughout their studies. Throughout this discussion of academic content, we can work with students to develop their own capacity to make evaluative judgements about their work, and progressively learn to construct their own feedback. But throughout this process, while we try to ensure the appropriate balance between praise and critique, we must remain cognisant that the student’s learning gain is more important than their satisfaction. Prof. David Carliss challenged us at the start of the Y1 feedback conference to consider that feedback is only feedback if students use it, that we need to help students incorporate our feedback into their learning strategies, even if they don’t use it for that particular assignment. Viewed through this lens, our feedback not the end of the assignment process, just an intermediate step. Taking the next step and helping our students to engage with our feedback and continuing our dialogue with them is the natural progression of this process. As an analytical chemist, I am much more comfortable with initiating a dialogue on feedback content than on strategies to deal with feedback. But that is no reason not to begin that dialogue, and so I begin a concerted effort to engage students with the feedback I have, often meticulously, prepared. I have found the UK Higher Education Academy Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit (DEFT) particularly useful in my endeavours so far. I hope that my students will find it similarly useful, and that we can add the skill “effectively dealing with feedback” to the list of attributes in our graduate’s skills repertoire.

DEFT Toolkit: