How Does Formative, Written Feedback Help Students Improve Their Geographical Writing, pp. 3 of 17

Feedback and Formative Assessment

Feedback is a fundamental gesture of responding constructively. Both the giver and receiver of feedback have the common agenda of getting information so as to improve. In this sense, the one seeking feedback, whether it is for some form of performance or product, will use it as a vehicle for reflection.

Giving feedback is a socially constructed process, affected by the conditions in which it was produced, distributed, and received (Lea & Street, 1998). Evidence from institutional audit suggests that it is not always done well in higher education (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), 2006). In more than 40% of business schools inspected by the QAA, feedback was of variable quality, lacked focus, was too brief and provided too late to be of value (QAA, 2001). For the institutions studied by QAA, this might suggest a problem of the lack in effectiveness and even relevance of tutor feedback in positively influencing student performance. The literature confirms the need for feedback to have certain attributes for it to be effective.

Feedback that is formative – in that it can be used by both tutor and student to improve learning, teaching, and achievement – has potentially a key role to play in promoting student reflection. Formative assessment can provide students with the tools to enable them to improve their performance, but the quality of the formative feedback is critical (Black & William, 1998). This is because students need help in making the connections among their feedback, the characteristics of their work, and how to improve it in future.

To best make these connections, good quality feedback must be not only accurate, timely, comprehensive, and appropriate, but also accessible to the learner, have catalytic and coaching value, and inspire confidence and hope (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004; Sadler, 1998; Weaver, 2006). In order for it to enable learning, students need to understand the purpose of feedback and the assessment criteria for the work (Weaver, 2006) and to be actively involved in monitoring their own learning and progress. Feedback on generic issues has greater potential to feed forward into future tasks (Carless, 2006, cited in Wheatley et al., 2015), though Higgins (2000) contends that many students are unable to understand feedback comments and to interpret them correctly. In extreme cases, student self-esteem may even be damaged by feedback (Ivanic, Clark, & Rimmershaw, 2000); rather than motivate students towards higher levels of achievement, inappropriately worded feedback may prove to be a demotivating factor.  Finally, students are concerned by the timing, fairness, extent of feedback, and the lack of development that it may afford (Mutch, 2003). If papers are returned after a module or unit is completed, there is less incentive to think about the feedback (Higgins et al., 2002; Hounsell, 1987).

As it is, written feedback as a mode of discourse is relatively under-researched (Higgins et al., 2002), given the multiple contexts in which it is applied and the multiple factors that influence it. For one thing, written feedback sheets, as Randall and Mirador (2003) have pointed out, also have other audiences (external examiners, internal examiners, and other faculty staff), which suggests that the guiding principles behind how written feedback is crafted need not solely be instructional intentions or learning objectives in a context of teaching and learning.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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