From outside-in to inside-out (and possibly back-to-front) rethinking #feedback

Back in the 1990s I was a young developer working in the Learning & Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam University. One project that I was not directly involved with, but which I was present for, was on developing the use of feedback. Led by Richard Higgins and Peter Hartley, publications from this work are much cited. I don’t think I’ve reread any until now, but clearly it is ingrained in me! Or is that because Peter was my tutor for a while some years later? Anyway, I have just reread their paper ‘Getting the message across’ (Higgins, Hartley & Skelton, 2001).

It takes a communications perspective to the design of good feedback and challenges preoccupations with a QA approach to examining the quality of feedback as being predominantly a matter of process, and argues for a student-centred view of feedback design.

“the process of feedback as communication is inherently problematic… it is impossible to investigate how an outside influence impacts upon a process if the internal dynamics of that process are not understood — that is, if the true nature of the process remains hidden (or simply assumed).” p. 272

The following is particularly pertinent to the work that I am currently conducting,

“We should be asking how the tutor comes to construct the feedback, how the student understands the feedback (how they make sense of it), and how they make sense of assessment and the learning context in general.” p. 273

As discussed in previous posts, assessment and feedback is experienced differently by each student. I argue that w recognise this as we design and engage students with the task. Higgins et al. seem to be saying something similar in the following.

“Tutors [cannot] assume that students will understand a list of assessment criteria. Feedback may need to be more dialogical and ongoing. Discussion, clarification and negotiation between student and tutor can equip students with a better appreciation of what is expected of them, and develop their understandings of academic terms and appropriate practices before or as they begin to write. Perhaps we need to shift the emphasis to ‘feeding forward’ into a piece of work, rather than simply ‘feeding back’. ” p. 274

This is where my ‘back-to-front’ comes in – let us focus more on how a student comes to a task  – how they are supported in navigating it – before we dive in to work out why there may be a problem with the feedback, wherever it occurs.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P. & Skelton, A. (2001). Getting the message across: the problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 6(2), pp. 269-274. –

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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