One of the challenges to changing feedback practice is lack of time. Our modularised and measured practices in higher education have resulted in “feedback” being the comments given in a pre-defined number of minutes, in response to a student’s piece of work returned with a mark/grade in 2-3 weeks. Given the tight timeframes for already harried staff, it is perhaps not surprising that new conceptualisations of feedback being co-constructed and relational are not gaining much traction. So what’s to be done about improving feedback within these constrains?

Feedback design needs to be seen as part of holistic subject design. We do education a disservice by compartmentalising the activities of assessment, feedback and teaching. While we have developed strategies to at least tie together learning outcomes, activities (or content) and assessment, through the materials of constructive alignment (with rubrics, unit guides etc), feedback remains the bolt-on in this model.

Feedback can and should make a difference to student learning. Our recent review identified that effective feedback needs to scaffold students’ knowledge production through nested tasks, where students can use the information to improve their work, hence closing a feedback loop. Creating opportunities for dialogue are also key as this enables students to ask questions, clarify what is needed and check their understanding. Reflective tasks such as interactive cover sheets and response letters explaining how feedback was used, prompt student sense making and repeat engagement with the work.

These approaches to feedback design prioritise the purpose of feedback as for learning and not about justifying the grade. Deliberately designing feedback for learning has the added benefit that students recognise that they are cared about and that their learning matters. This relational sense can lead to greater motivation and effort on behalf of students and, I expect, lead to greater satisfaction for staff. Technological media such as audio or video feedback can be used in such designs to promote students’ engagement.

So what about time? One way forward in the time-juggle is to reduce the total number of assignments and exams in a subject and to think about how that time might be used instead to design effective feedback processes to close even just one feedback loop within each subject. The compromise might be to remove less effective strategies (e.g. feedback after the last assignment) and replace these with deliberately designed feedback activities, such as front-ended feedback through sequenced tasks that meaningfully scaffold students’ learning.

Engaging in such a deliberate act of feedback design might better achieve the range of learning outcomes that a subject needs to drive, rather than having multiple fragmented assignments that in turn fragment student learning. And who doesn’t have time for that!

Rola Ajjawi

Associate Professor, Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, Deakin University


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