Not all feedback is criticism


Along with assessment, feedback is extremely important for both students and teachers. My previous blog post focused on assessment and how it can be best integrated in the learning process. I will now turn to the idea of feedback and try to elaborate on a few thoughts I’ve recently discussed with educators in different contexts.

Why give feedback?

If grades should not be the main motivational factor for designing (and taking) assignments, then perhaps feedback is the thing we should be looking at. Feedback, throughout the duration of the course, adds real value to the assessment process. As educators, we have to remember that our main role is to empower students to learn. Not to spoon-feed them. Not to test the way they digested the knowledge we often throw at them. But to facilitate their learning process, to guide them through the various steps and be there when/ if they need us.

Formative vs summative feedback

We need to constantly provide and receive feedback in order to ensure the teaching and learning experience is fruitful. Especially in the case of active, student-centered learning methods, feedback (from the teachers and from peers) is an integral part of the learning process. The dichotomy between formative feedback (given along the way, step by step, with the aim of supporting students in their learning) and summative feedback (essentially grades at the end of the term, maybe including short comments) often reflects our philosophy about education. But one type does not necessarily exclude the other: summative feedback is obviously ok (a few months too late but, hey, it’s never too late to learn, right?), but formative feedback is a lot more constructive and can help students improve their learning and develop their potential.

When to give feedback? And how often?

Offering the right sort of feedback at the right moment can make a huge difference in the learning outcomes and the overall experience students take away from our courses. However helpful it may be, giving too much feedback too often (I know, I also never really thought that even makes sense, until I thought about it twice…) is not really helping the students and in the worst case it can overwhelm or even demotivate them. When in doubt how to get this fine balance right, think of this: it is ultimately the student performing a certain task or activity; his/ her performance is and should be unique; we are there to guide that performance with our comments without trying to transform it into exactly what we want to see.

Feedback ≠ criticism

A lesson that is equally relevant for both students and teachers: giving feedback is not the same as criticising. Receiving feedback should not be interpreted (and dismissed) as being criticised. But all too often the lack of experience in structuring and formulating feedback can lead to misunderstandings and can even create resentment. Offering constructive comments on someone’s work is a valuable skill that we as educators have to work on constantly, as well as trying our best to transfer it to our students. Feedback is an essential complement to assessment.

When, how often and how we offer feedback to our students is up to each of us and is linked to the learning goals of our courses. The key is simply to perceive it as a means of supporting the students rather than a compulsory exercise we have to do as part of our jobs.

NOTE: originally published on 09/12/2015 on The Educationalist