Teachers give students feedback. It may be comments written on a paper, it may be scores on an exam, or it may be verbal comments made about a performance. It is given assuming that the students will use that feedback to improve—on their next paper, exam score, or performance. However, despite the time and effort that goes into providing students with helpful, constructive feedback, students often do not act on it. The next paper, exam, or performance is flawed in the same way the previous one was. Teachers are justifiably frustrated and unable to understand how students who want to do well can ignore feedback designed to help them achieve that goal. The feedback itself has been analyzed and the literature is replete with advice on its effective delivery—the assumption being that if teachers deliver it better, the chances that students will use it increase.
For a number of years now a small but growing group of scholars (most of them outside the US) have been calling for a reconceptualization of feedback. “In order to improve feedback practices, a rather more fundamental rethinking of the place of assessment and feedback within the curriculum is needed.” (p. 700) David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy propose “a more robust view of feedback: one that focuses primarily on the needs of learning rather than the capacities of the teacher.” (p.700)
Their paper backgrounds this new thinking with a revisit to the origins of feedback. “The notion of corrective feedback was a key idea of the industrial revolution and a necessary part of the development of early steam engines.” In these early conceptions, feedback was depicted as a cycle or loop. An external source provided the information needed to correct how an engine was functioning and the engine made the correction. It wasn't just a matter of transmitting the information; the information had to be used.
Here's why Boud and Molloy don't think the current feedback model is working in higher education. “The main limitation … is the assumption it makes about the nature of learners. It assumes that they require others to identify and provide the information they need to learn, and that learning is driven by how others go about this process. This accords learners a lowly status with little volition, limited agency and dependence on teachers or a teaching system.” (p. 703)
The rethinking they propose involves something called “sustainable assessment,” and its overarching goal is equipping students to be lifelong learners. More specifically, it has these four characteristics: 1) students engage in discussions about learning, which raises their awareness of quality performance; 2) students start monitoring and evaluating their own learning; 3) student capacities for lifelong learning are supported by the development of skills related to goal-setting and how to plan learning; and 4) assessment tasks are designed so that students get feedback from varied sources, which they evaluate and then use to improve performance.
Boud and Molloy argue that unless students see themselves as change agents, unless they think that they control and direct their learning, they aren't likely to be receptive to feedback from others. They may not think they understand it or know how to act on it. Feedback should not be “a process that is done to students by educators. All stakeholders in teaching and learning need to be explicitly orientated to the purpose of feedback as self-regulating, and to view it as a means to increase capability in making judgements and acting upon them.” (p. 706)
A reconceptualization of this magnitude calls for changes in the curriculum. “Of special importance is the practice of students in making judgements about their own work and that others. From early in the programme, students need opportunities to judge their own performance, to see how this appraisal compares with appraisal by others.” (p. 707) This is how students discover what they do and don't know, what they can and can't do. “The challenge for educators is to systematically build these expectations of learner self-analysis into the curriculum.” (p. 708)
This understanding of feedback also changes the role of teachers. “Teachers become designers and sustainers of the learning milieu; establishing conditions in which students can operate with agency. The focus of sustainable feedback shifts from the provision of feedback to the design of learning environments, the seeding of generative tasks and fostering of interactions with and between students and staff.” (p. 710)
Notably absent from the article is discussion of how this new thinking about feedback fits with the grade-driven paradigm of higher education. Even so, the ideas are interesting, provocative, and definitely worth thinking about and discussing with others. If your faculty reading group is looking for an interesting article, this one certainly qualifies. Australian David Boud is a widely published and well-known higher education scholar. His work is thoughtful, well-reasoned, and always offers interesting perspectives on familiar ideas.
Boud, D., and Molloy, E. (2014). Rethinking models of feedback for learning: the challenge of design. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38 (6), 698-712.