Organizing and providing effective feedback to students

Nowadays, teachers in higher education more and more encounter larger groups of students which are more diverse. Simultaneously the goal of education is shifting towards preparing students for life-long learning. Teachers might need to shift their teaching style from a more teacher-centered style to a more student-centered style. In student-centered teaching styles the teacher often has a more coachingbased style in which feedback skills are essential. Feedback is found to be one of the most important influences on learning (e.g., Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Hattie, 2009). In other words: providing effective feedback is a powerful tool to reinforce student learning. However, providing effective feedback (i.e., reinforcing learning) is not easy, and giving feedback does not always result in learning (e.g., Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Shute, 2008). Against this background several teacher trainers and researchers of the TU/e started a project funded by the TU/e Bachelor College to

  1. get an overview of recent developments in research on effective feedback,
  2. get an overview of the current state of affairs at the TU/e as seen by teachers and directors of education, and
  3. create products for professional development on feedback skills.

The project is based on several suppositions:

  1. the quality of feedback given is strongly influenced by the teachers' knowledge, beliefs and quality concepts concerning learning, teaching and feedback;
  2. these aspects are often not taken into account sufficiently during innovations;
  3. consequently the teaching practice often does not move sufficiently towards the desired outcome;
  4. therefore it is essential that professional development connects to the current knowledge and skills of the teachers.

As part of our project we conducted a preliminary inquiry, wherein we performed a literature review and interviewed TU/e teachers and directors of education. A first conclusion from these interviews is that teachers and Directors of Education have a teacher-centered view on learning, teaching and feedback. A second conclusion is that both teachers and directors of education consider feedback to be important. Individually they do not list all aspects of high quality feedback (in terms of e.g. Hattie & 1 This document is based on - besides the project data - (previous) research of M. van Diggelen and M. Thurlings, with support from C. Morgan, A. Tops and C. van Weert. 3 Timperley, 2007), but as a group they do. A third conclusion is that according to the teachers, most students gradually develop a feedback inviting attitude during their study.

We also asked whether they saw a need for further professional development on feedback skills, and if so, what their preferred method was. All but one of the interviewees saw this need within their Department. They showed a preference for methods whereby they learn hands-on, with colleagues, under supervision of an expert, and based on a sound theoretical background and best practices. The details on the theoretical background for this project and the preliminary inquiry are described in a separate article.

To reach the goals intended by the Bachelor College educational innovation (Meijers & den Brok, 2013), the teachers need to:

  • be convinced of the need that students take on a self-regulating attitude towards learning and feedback, and
  • have sufficient knowledge and skills on learning, teaching and feedback to be able to give effective feedback to help students gain insight and skills necessary for them to take on this new attitude.
  • learn to recognize and focus their feedback on different aspects of learning (e.g. levels of feedback Hattie and Timperley, 2007)

To enable the above points we needed to design the professional development in such a way that the teachers become aware of their current knowledge and beliefs concerning teaching and learning, and understand the consequences this has for effective feedback.

The project delivered two instruments: the manual and the self assessment instrument.

We tested the manual and (self-)assessment instrument on three different occasions with different groups of participants, namely (1) a representation of the teachers and directors of education we interviewed earlier on during the project, (2) teacher trainers from other organizations, and (3) TU/e 5 teachers , who had not yet been involved in this project. We made use of a part of the developed training module, and thus had the participants work with the manual and (self-)assessment instrument. Several users from the first group pointed out, that the model is quite complex; the user needs to invest some time and effort to make use of the full potential of the model. The second group also mentioned this point, and because of this wondered whether the tools would be suitable for a training or coaching setting. However, using the tools during the session led to many interesting discussions and insights into giving effective feedback. Because of this, the teacher trainers were quite positive about the tools and model of Hattie and Timperley as input for their own coaching and teaching on feedback skills. Based on these experiences we decided to adapt the set-up for the third group slightly, and position the tools in a different manner. We did this by clarifying that it is not the goal that the participants will have fully absorbed the model by the end of the session, but that it is a starting point for development of their feedback skills. This last group of users were very enthusiastic about the model and tools, and did not want them to be simplified. Based on the three user tests, it seemed that the most important adjustments to be made were not in the tools themselves, but in the positioning of the tools, so that there was a better fit between users’ expectations and the function of the tools. The user tests led to several adjustments, of which the most important ones were the following:

  • Add an introduction to the manual to clarify the goal and goal audiences, and to give a more explicit definition of giving feedback.
  • Add the picture of the model of Hattie and Timperley to the manual, to support better understanding of the model.
  • Condense the text in the (self-)assessment instrument to improve usability.
  • Allow more time during the training component for participants to read the (self-)assessment instrument before being asked to use it. 

Project website (in Dutch)