Feedback as a dialogue, or what is this module even supposed to be about?

I’ve stepped back from blogging in the last few months during my research leave so that I can concentrate on setting up the groundwork for a new book project – but wanted to write a short post about student feedback after finding out last week that I’d won our student union’s ‘Best Feedback’ award.

I’m honoured to be nominated but all the more so after such rewarding experiences teaching my modules on ‘Music, Politics and Violence’ and ‘Nations and Nationalism’ last semester, as well as contributing to the ‘Practising Modern History’ module on our new Masters programmes (if you have ever wanted to design all your own assessment titles and find out how historians turn specialised research interests into big questions about the past and present then this might be the Masters for you…).

I didn’t see the nominations until last week’s ceremony but was thrilled to be described like this:

‘Dr Baker not only issues quality feedback to her students, allowing them to learn and improve, but she also asks for feedback from students in order to develop her own teaching skills. She encourages students to write down anything they did not understand in a lecture so she can see what needs to be focused on from within the module. Nominations highlighted her promptness in replying to e-mails, her quality insight, and her dedication to answering questions in depth while also recommending further reading.

‘”Catherine Baker is an outstanding staff member and a valuable asset, not only to the History department, but to the whole of the University… Her feedback is very clear and communicates to students their strengths, weaknesses and suggests how they can improve… Her feedback and attentiveness to students has inspired me to further study at the University of Hull.”‘

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I often don’t think of myself as doing anything particularly innovative in terms of feedback, compared to what today’s marking technologies make possible – I haven’t been using video/audio feedback, pre-set comment banks, feedback widgets like this one Claire Hardaker designed recently, or anything I couldn’t have done in the days of paper essays and multicoloured pens.

And our whole department is focused on ‘feed-forward’ – being clear about what someone can do next to improve their next piece of work (we redesigned our feedback cover-sheets recently so that every piece of feedback has a section all about this) – so our wider feedback culture’s being recognised here.

Where I do do innovative things with feedback they often don’t strike me as innovative any more, because they’ve been part of my teaching practice for so (relatively) long. One idea I’ve used ever since I read about it on a blog by the classics lecturer Liz Gloyn is to take a minute at the end of lectures for students to reflect on what one thing they found clearest in the lecture, what one thing they found least clear, and to write both of those down anonymously on an index card. Any ‘least clear’ topics that recur show me what I ought to go over at the beginning of the next lecture or pay extra attention to in seminars.

(The link is from 2012 but I was already using them in autumn 2011 after reading something else that Liz had written about them.)

I’ve done this in practically every solo module I’ve taught (except my Special Subject, which has a workshop format) since the year before I came to Hull, and this year it seems to have worked particularly well.

Beyond the immediate insight into what I need to go back over about the idea we’re currently working on to make sure students are grasping it before we go on to the next thing, over several years using this kind of activity I’ve realised it helps me do several other things in explaining the kind of learning environment I want to have.

Firstly, it makes it normal for things to feel unclear. Everyone will have a clearest thing and everyone will have a least clear thing about a lecture (and the clearest thing for one person might be the most difficult bit of all for someone else – in fact, more often than not that is the case). It’s not a weakness to admit that you didn’t understand something – and that’s an important thing to convey, especially as I start getting more senior myself and acquiring more intimidating-looking expertise.

(One day when I’m talking to a class about it being normal not to understand new ideas clearly I might bring along one of the books I’ve annotated in the margins with ????? or WHAT IS THIS BOOK EVEN ABOUT?. Those are both notes I’ve made in the past month. One of the books made sense a few days later while I was reading something else, and the other book… well. What was it even about.)

Secondly, I hope it suggests that students can start to recognise when they’re feeling unclear about something and that that’s the time to ask for feedback – which is just as important to someone’s path through a module as the lectures and seminars they follow.

Thirdly, sometimes it’s an opportunity for a student to feed back anonymously on something about the teaching that really didn’t work – an example I oversimplified in a lecture, or something that made them uncomfortable in a seminar discussion. Then I can try to fix it. I hope I’ve managed to.

Fourthly, sometimes a ‘thing that felt unclear’ is actually the beginning of someone forming an original question or interpretation of a problem. If none of the theories of national identity we covered in the lecture explain this case that you already know about, that might be the beginning of an outstanding essay… and when I go over what made it such a good question it helps to demonstrate that I’m not looking for assessments which just summarise the readings, I want to be reading insights of students’ own.

Sometimes I have no idea about the answer to a question on one of the cards either. And then I try to say so.

Fifthly, it shows that feedback isn’t just something that happens after submitting an assignment – it’s something that students and I should both be taking part in before they even start writing.

For the last year or two, I’ve been including a note about ‘what to expect from the teaching on this module’ in my module handbooks. This can explain why this module has the particular combination of assessments that it does, call attention to sensitive topics in the module and how we’re going to try to handle those, and emphasise that getting informal feedback on the ideas you’re developing is an everyday part of teaching and learning, not just something you wait to do until your dissertation – it doesn’t have to be about submitting an assignment cold and wondering if you ‘did it properly’.

So I see feedback as a process more than an event – but also as part of encouraging students to be able to express and explain their own interpretations of the topic, which they need to do in order to approach any assignment, but especially the ones that require more independence in deciding what they’re going to write about and connecting it into what they understand as the core of the module.

Getting informal feedback either through office hours or over email is just as much a part of this as group learning sessions, and I’ve been impressed by how many students have been seeking it out this year in particular.

And I genuinely want to know what students are interested in and thinking about within a module. I spend 3-4 hours a week in the classroom for each module, and more hours planning the lectures and activities, on top of setting up how all the topics ought to work together when I design the module for the first time; students all take the same structure of learning, combine that with other knowledge and interests inside and outside their degree, and end up with very different paths through the topic.

Seeing that happen while a module is in progress is one of the things that makes teaching so exciting – people are doing things with this thing that I designed! – even when it’s a module that has run for several years and I feel like I know it back to front. The students are different and where they take the module will be too.

The way I approach written feedback on assessments isn’t all that different from how I approach peer-reviewing academic articles for publication: what does this piece want to argue, what’s holding the argument back from coming across, and how could it communicate its argument better?  Where else could this argument go?

These are the questions I have to ask myself as I work out where a piece of work would fit into our mark scheme, and most of the notes I make as I go will end up in the actual written feedback. (Which is probably why I still haven’t built myself an online comment bank – I may be giving essentially the same advice several times when I mark a set of assignments but I still need to type it as I’m thinking in order to understand what I want to say.)

It’s particularly rewarding to be able to do this with work where students are already developing independence as researchers – in fact some of my most rewarding teaching moments this year have come from seeing students start to be able to express questions that have motivated them, not just inside one module but across their whole degree programme, to find out more about something to do with the past.

But it all starts with the expectations we set before a module even begins…

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