From active learning to active feedback

Are teachers spending too much time giving feedback on students’ work? What if there was a way to empower students to take more control over feedback processes and improve their work without increasing teacher feedback? Bas Trimbos and David Nicol claim that there is. Build on students’ natural feedback capacity, for example, the feedback that students generate when they compare their work against information in a textbook or online and use that to make improvements. By encouraging and guiding students to rely on their own inner feedback processes, teachers not only reduce their workload but also foster student autonomy and success.

Advantages of teacher feedback

Feedback on student work has been primarily focused on the points for improvement provided by teachers. This is understandable given that the teacher is subject expert and that student interaction with a teacher can be motivational. However, there are several drawbacks to teacher feedback:

  • It can be emotionally distressing for some students leading to negative reactions and potential disengagement. Even if written carefully some students perceive it as criticism and react badly.
  • Students can become overly reliant on teacher feedback and fail to take ownership of their own learning, leading to a lack of self-critique.
  • Teachers often invest significant time and effort in providing feedback that may not be fully understood, utilized or even read by students.

However, there is a solution to these issues. Encourage students to critically evaluate their own work by harnessing their inner feedback capability.

What is inner feedback?

Inner feedback is the process by which students generate new understandings about their work by comparing it, against internal (e.g., memories of past work) and/or external information (e.g., a worked solution to a problem in a textbook). David Nicol argues that there are four sources of external information that students use to generate inner feedback:

  • Comments from teachers (e.g., who usually give points for improvement)
  • Comments arising from discussions with peers (e.g., when discussing the work) or formally provided when teachers organise for peer assessment.
  • Information in resources such as textbooks, diagrams, peer works, videos, rubrics etc.
  • Observing others and events (e.g. a chemical reaction in the lab).

While students might already be using a combination of these four sources of information to generate feedback as they are producing their work, the only one that teachers usually plan for is their use of comments. Why don’t we build on this natural feedback capacity asks Bas?

How do you harness and build on students’ inner feedback capability?

Even though generating feedback happens naturally, to turn this into a powerful pedagogical process requires some planning by the teacher. The students need to DO some work, then make some conscious and deliberate COMPARISONS of that work against information in different kinds of resources and make the output EXPLICIT in writing (self-feedback comments) or in improvements in their work. In starting with this process, the role of the teacher is to select the comparators and to give instructional prompts on what to focus on. When used in this way feedback becomes a tool not just to correct students’ work but to develop their critical and creative thinking. Of course, when students become familiar with this way of generating feedback, they can select resources for each other and even prompt peers on what to focus on.

Integrating with peer feedback and teacher feedback

This approach is not a replacement for peer feedback or teacher commenting. Rather, it is a complementary approach. After making resource comparisons, students can compare their work, and the feedback they have generated about it, with that of peers before receiving any feedback from the teacher. With this sequence, areas of improvement will already have been identified, and the teacher is better placed to give direction to his or her comments. Students also generate feedback based on their own needs, some of which the teacher will not have identified. This approach also results in students not having to wait for teacher comments, as they can generate their own self-feedback commentary during the act of producing their work.

Integrate it into current practice

Bas Trimbos and David Nicol have noticed during workshops that teachers find it easy to design feedback from this student perspective. If you want to know more about the power of inner feedback, then come to the SBO Learning Strategies conference! Bas and David provide an interactive workshop, where you will have an opportunity to design an active feedback implementation for your own classroom and discipline. Would you like to know more about the relationship between learning strategies, student motivation and self-regulation? Then choose the Self-regulated learning course in MBO & HO. This training is also possible as an Incompany course.

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