Student feedback literacy—Is it meaningless academic jargon or destined to become a trendy handle? Neither is my hope for this moniker. While the term was originally defined as a student’s ability to read, interpret, and use written feedback, Carless and Boud (2018) enhance its definition by adding that it’s “the understandings, capacities and dispositions needed to make sense of information and use it to enhance work or learning strategies” (p. 1316). In this excellent article, they propose four features that provide the framework for student feedback literacy: appreciating feedback, making judgments, managing affect, and taking action. (Editor's note: See David Carless's Teaching Professor article on student feedback literacy here.)
The role they lay out for feedback sharply contrasts with how many students understand and experience it. Teachers identify strengths and weaknesses in an assignment and tell students how to improve. Despite extensive teacher comments, students often ignore the feedback or seem unable to implement the suggestions in subsequent work. What students would really like from teachers isn’t feedback but a clear description of what the teacher wants. If they can figure that out, then chances for a good grade improve, or so they think. Focusing on what the teacher wants construes feedback in misleading ways. These authors, both with an impressive collection of research and writing on feedback, propose ways to reorient students to feedback and thereby increase its impact.
Feedback literacy starts with students appreciating the value of feedback—recognizing that they can learn from it and act on it. Teacher feedback focused on telling students what they need to do doesn’t usually make them appreciate feedback. Carless and Boud point out that there’s an academic language necessary to understand, interpret, and act on feedback, and without that language, it’s hard for students to see connections between the feedback, their grade, and learning. “Those comments on my paper are just your opinions,” a student once told me.
We want students to use feedback to improve their work, and we will achieve that goal only if students are also making judgments about their work. Most students are not very good at evaluating what they’ve done, and it’s often the weakest students who struggle the most with self-assessment. Accurate self-assessment is important for professional reasons; teachers won’t always be there to identify and correct mistakes. But equally important is the motivation necessary to make changes, and learners are more likely to change what they have determined needs changing.
Feedback literacy also requires managing affect—those feelings, emotions, and attitudes that arise from our connection to our work and the judgments others make about it. As most of us have learned, it takes practice to disconnect the person from the performance. Students tend to take negative comments personally, drawing large conclusions about their abilities from them. “The tone in which feedback is shared is one of the most critical aspects of how students react to feedback” (p. 1318). There’s strong research evidence that students’ engagement with feedback increases when they believe their teacher cares about them as learners.
Finally and possibly most important of all is taking action. It is so disappointing to have provided students with feedback they can act on only for them to repeat the same errors in the next assignment. We may be underestimating the difficulty of taking feedback from one assignment and acting on it in the next one. The feedback literacy framework unambiguously shows that end-of-course feedback by its very nature reduces the likelihood of the action step. Designing multistage assignments and projects with several feedback opportunities develops literacy “through coherent iterative sequences in which students generate, receive and use feedback” (p. 1322).
To develop students’ ability to use both internal and external feedback, activities involving feedback need to be included in the course and incorporated in multiple courses across the curriculum of a program or major. I was just recently reminded how some of these skills take a lifetime of practice: I had a paper rejected. After being in a funk for several days, I reread the piece, more than once. I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s in it not to like.
Carless, D., & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: Enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(8), 1315–1325. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354 [open access]
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