4 September 2022

Re-booting my Brain to Give Feedback in Further Education

One thing often leads to another. A TES article from February – “Does marking really boost student motivation?” – is currently trending again. No surprise, I guess, as the new academic year is starting and teachers are already, no doubt, beginning to dread the marking that will go with it.

I think the "takeaway" here for me is the elements of the article about feedback. Yes, marking is feedback, it argues, but surely a few words of praise will stay with a learner a lot longer. I couldn’t agree more. Last year, I committed myself to being more conscious of the feedback I gave and the manner in which it was given - this was to ensure that all learners received some kind of feedback from me in any given class. Now, at the start of the new academic year, I feel my brain needs a little re-boot to get back into the zone, as it were. So here are my re-boot thoughts for giving feedback in a Further Education environment. However, I hope it’s just as relevant to teachers in primary, secondary or tertiary education.

Teach the students about feedback
I always include a section about feedback for students in the course handbook which is given to them in their induction week. It outlines for them some of the forms feedback can take outside of the context of written marking. When observers ask students what kind of feedback they get in a class, it's often met with blank stares as students, like us, often primarily associate feedback with written teacher comments. This could become an issue as most FE college have now adopted the Ofsted model of observation where, at a certain point, teachers may be asked to leave the classroom to enable the observer to question the class about their course and their progress. Feedback will come up if your students are questioned.

So, explaining the different types of feedback to students at the beginning of a course can help a lot with observations - you know, those visits to our classrooms we all love and beg to be the first in the faculty to be "done" each year. We need to be seen giving feedback in an observation, of course, but just as importantly students need to be able to recognise and explain it to a third party. Taking the time to outline, explain and recap the different forms of feedback to students (and acknowledge when you are giving feedback consistently) certainly helped when Ofsted came to my institution last year. My tutor groups were already primed and ready to confidently talk with HMI about the kinds of feedback they received like "old hands" - much to my relief as one of them was selected for the “deep dive”.

Start as you mean to go on - diagnostic/initial assessment
Without feedback, your diagnostic/initial assessment will have no purpose. Without fully involving your learners in the process, it will have no meaning. So, once we do an assessment with a group, what do we do with it?

Whatever form your initial/diagnostic assessment takes, I would like to share with you the ways that I use mine for feedback (my course has a long-established initial assessment). First and foremost, mark them as soon as possible – and I say that without irony - by the next day wherever possible so it is still fresh in the students' minds. Next:
  • Feedback to the whole group. I usually outline three or four strengths that the whole group has demonstrated, with the same number of areas for improvement. Tie these in with learning objectives and outcomes wherever possible. This helps to introduce students to course content as well as structure.
  • Feedback to individuals. It's important that students get a copy of their own assessment and keep it in their folder. This not only gives them marked feedback (which they may not look at by themselves) but then allows you to spend time with individual students to have a chat with them about their current levels of knowledge and skill.
  • Use group and individual feedback to inform learning targets. Group targets can be created from both the strengths and the areas for improvement and set for the whole group - and are easy to put on whichever tracking system you use. Tutorial time can then be used to introduce the idea of student-driven targets which will promote independent learning.
  • Repeat and rinse. Return and refer to the initial assessment as often as possible. Create a progress test which covers at least the group targets and as many individuals targets as possible. I usually do a progress test around the first half-term. Use the progress test to inform your future delivery. I have found this particularly useful in terms of the externally examined units on the L2 course I run (we get pretty good results). When feedback occurs for the progress test, targets can then be claimed and owned by the students and their academic development monitored. It's good for planning and implementing short and long-term interventions but most importantly for me, it helps the students to develop their own metacognitive skills.
The process may appear fairly simplistic - it is more nuanced than this and sometimes has to be adapted to suit needs (both individual and group), but I'm attempting to keep this short. No, really. Again, if and when you are observed this year, the observer is likely to ask the group about the initial/diagnostic assessment, so reference it as often as you can with a group so the fact they have done one sinks in. They need to remember it and show how you and they have acted upon it to develop knowledge and skills and enhance behaviour (perhaps call that classroom readiness) using it as a starting point. Please feedback with the methods you use in the comments box at the end of this article.

As the terms begins - what feedback will I use?

Socratic to the end, for me this often means asking questions. "That looks good. Can I give you some feedback in the form of a few questions? First, can you run through what you're doing here for me?" is a favourite when I want to initiate a short discussion about work a student is doing at their computer. The value of praise cannot be underestimated when it is underpinned with a directed challenge to expand thoughts and ideas and translate it into better coursework.

At the beginning of the course, however, I am mindful of the importance of answering questions too. I will ask a thousand questions in a day (and that's without hyperbole, he fibbed). However, take an individual student. Let's say they ask me one question over the course of a day - it could be about anything, and frankly it may well not be relevant to what we have just been doing. However, to them it is THE ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION that they have. So, my feedback to their question (also known as the answer!) is incredibly important here. Sometimes I may even need to take them somewhere in the college rather than just direct them (this is truly appreciated by the newbies even if it isn't by my tired old legs). My brain tells me I don't have the time, but I have to make it. Whatever action I take, that action is essentially the feedback they receive to their question. It could mean the difference between them going home happy or unhappy. It could make the difference between them returning the next day or... not. So, my positive (and kind) feedback to student needs is vital at the beginning of the academic year. It's my primary retention tool.

As the weeks progress, what feedback tools will I use?

Too many to include all, but here are some I use regularly.

Outside of questioning, asking a student if I can use their work as an example to run through with the rest of the class is also another favourite. It's a form of thought collaboration that not only sends that student out of class positively glowing but enables peer-group learning with teacher-driven explanation at a minimum once a conversation is created. It often leads, too, to others asking if they can show the class their own work.

This can often lead to student-teacher collaboration. If a student shows an aptitude for something I will ask them if, in a day or two (or even a week or two) they will do a five-minute lesson (a microteach, if you will) to the class recapping their knowledge of it and demonstrating their skills. I let them know that I will not just sit back and listen, I'll be there if they need a prompt. Last year this led to a series of micros by students - it became a common feature in IT classes. Most memorable, perhaps, were the five-minute lessons about punctuation in my GCSE English classes which led to a hilarious if incredibly short teach about the ways punctuation can be used to finish sentences to an enlightening and beautifully delivered explanation of the use of colons and semi-colons. Plus, of course, students will listen to each other way more than they will listen to me (if the micro is prepared and not "on the hoof"). Win win. You might argue that this is feedback-driven action rather than feedback in its naked form, but I'm happy to blur the lines between the two.

If I can't fulfil my commitment to give every individual the meaningful feedback (and time) I want, I make time in the plenary to say words to the effect: "next session, I want to spend a little more time with A, B and C. Can you make sure I do this by reminding me?", They know that my next meander around the class will focus on them, first and foremost.

I'm going to stop there even though I am inclined to carry on. If you are still reading this, you probably have too much time on your hands - go do a lesson plan or something!

Seriously, I hope that my own thoughts on how I will reboot my brain around feedback have helped you to also re-boot, given you food for thought and provoked some ideas and responses which I hope you will share.