By Dr Tracii Ryan, Faculty of Education, Monash University
Despite considerable research focused on assessment feedback, it still remains a challenging and contentious issue in Australian universities. Feedback regularly receives low ratings in course satisfaction surveys, with students reporting that educators’ comments can be ambiguous, generic, or received too late to be useful. However, there are pockets of feedback excellence across the sector. What are these educators doing that is so good? What is the role of technology in supporting these practices? How can we leverage technologies, including the practices that surround them?
To answer these important questions, our team of feedback researchers from Monash University, Deakin University and The University of Melbourne embarked on an 18-month research project funded by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. The outputs of this project, called Feedback for learning: closing the assessment loop, included large-scale data from educators and students, seven rich case studies of effective feedback, a framework for effective feedback, and a national feedback ‘roadshow’ with educators and senior leaders in six capital cities. Through these research activities, we engaged with almost 6000 students, educators, educational designers, and senior leaders. Analysis of the rich data sets, particularly the seven case studies, identified twelve conditions that helped achieve feedback success.
The data clearly showed that technology had a role in enabling, or limiting, all twelve of these conditions. However, some particularly called for greater attention to, and investment in, digital technologies. One such example is Condition 4: Feedback is successful when learners and educators have access to appropriate space and technology. This condition was identified through careful analysis of our case studies, which indicated that access to appropriate technology not only supported innovations in feedback design, but also arguably created a fundamental capacity for effective feedback across the institution.
I have selected two interesting case study examples to discuss here which exemplify how technology can be used to support effective feedback practices, The first example highlights how educators can use audio recordings to provide personalised and rich feedback comments at scale. The second demonstrates how Twitter can encourage learners to seek authentic feedback information from multiple diverse sources, including peers. For more case study examples, please visit our project website at www.feedbackforlearning.org.
Audio feedback at scale
The case study Personalised Feedback at scale: Moderating audio feedback in first-year psychology features the use of audio recordings to provide rich feedback comments to students. A team of tutors created five-minute audio recordings that contained detailed, meaningful, personalised, and motivating feedback comments. The educator-in-charge suggested that it would not have been possible to provide rich and personalised feedback comments to such a large cohort (approximately 1500 students) using text, as writing or typing comments take time and can be limited in detail and specificity. On the other hand, audio recordings allow for verbal delivery of information and convey rich cues (such as tone and pace) that can assist with sense-making. While the educators in this case study used audio, feedback recordings can also be created used video or screencasts. One limitation of audio is that it lacks visual information, but due to their smaller size, audio files are convenient to upload and host using an institution’s learning management system. To account for the lack of visual information in an audio recording, it can be helpful to clearly signpost each element of the assignment before discussing it (e.g., by referring to the theme or contention of the relevant paragraph). More information and recommendations for creating digital recorded feedback can be found here.
Feedback through social media
The previous case highlighted the powerful role an educator can have in providing feedback comments. However, it can be highly beneficial for students to engage in the feedback process with sources other than the educator (e.g., peers), both before and after submission of a task. Technologies can also support such endeavours, particularly social and collaborative tools like discussion forums, Twitter, YouTube, wikis, and shared documents. A nice example of this can be seen in the case study Authentic feedback through social media. The educator-in-charge of this digital media subject leveraged a Twitter hashtag and encouraged students to tweet links to their work-in-progress assignments (blog posts and online videos). Following this, they were asked to engage in brief feedback interactions with other students in the subject, as well as members of the public, businesses, and university social media accounts. This not only enabled students to seek performance information from multiple sources, but also provided authentic feedback experiences in a subject focused on online identity and social media use. While innovative, this feedback design could breach institutional policy in some contexts, so we would encourage educators to acquire permission before using social media in their teaching. Similarly, it would be useful for institutions to provide clear policy summaries specifically targeted towards the use of social media in teaching.
Overall, the two case studies discussed here clearly highlight how technology can play a powerful role in supporting effective feedback practices. It is heartening to note that when we surveyed 77 senior leaders from 34 Australian universities about our project findings, 72% felt that it was either very or extremely important for students and educators to have access to appropriate space and technology in order to support effective feedback. However, 37% indicated that their university had only invested a little or somewhat in this area. Clearly, it appears that more work can be done to convince some institutions of the value of technology in supporting effective feedback processes.
This blog reports on the output of the Feedback for Learning: Closing the Assessment Loop project team: A/Prof Michael Henderson, Prof David Boud, Prof Elizabeth Molloy, A/Prof Phillip Dawson, Dr Michael Phillips, Dr Tracii Ryan and Ms Paige Mahoney. Support for this project has been provided by the Australian Government Department of Education and Training. The views expressed in this project do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Government Department of Education and Training.