Feedback: where learning begins #activelearning

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While the title of this post is intentionally contentious, it allows me to reflect on one or two recent discussions and reinforce some key ideas about active learning design, especially in the context of ‘unified’ active learning (UAL): how it is recorded and how activity inputs and outputs are key to identifying knowledge moments, producing feedback and giving focus for learner reflection.

Unified Active Learning is central to our teaching and learning response at Anglia Ruskin University as we approach Trimester 1 this year. It encapsulates our extant strategy for active, inclusive and collaborative learning and emphasises the value and opportunities our thinking allows for engaging all of our students as one, however they have chosen to access learning on their course. As I review lecture-based strategies on Twitter in which academics elsewhere bravely state the extra effort they are making to find new ways to lecture, I remain convinced that a response based on the learner’s deep engagement with knowledge, rather than its delivery, is the right approach. ‘Content’ has its place, but what does it look like and how does it integrate with learning?

Feedback has an important part in this paradigm. To be brief, feedback’s role in active learning should be mostly forward-looking and, if understood as ‘the end of something’ – the final full stop following summative assessment – then its possibilities and value have been lost.

This week, I have been responding to the question of how we support late-comers and students who fall ill. Inevitably lecture capture surfaces as a response. Leaving the irony of that to one side, it is useful to ask “Well, what do we capture from our teaching then?” What can we put in front of those students who need to catch up?

This reminds me of non-Covid era questions that arise around active learning like, “Where’s the content our students need to revise?” “What is solid/static enough to call content?”, “Is content, or context king/queen?” etc. These questions are riddled with assumptions that knowledge is static and packageable, rather than an outcome of learning within the context of student-centred learning ecologies.

It is not only late-comers and students who fall ill that we should think about, but all students who in the course of their learning need to have ways of revisiting key ideas and critically reviewing what they have learnt.

Without going further into detail, the answer to such dilemmas lies in understanding active learning as a matter of,

  1. Inputs and stimuli
  2. Activity and exploration
  3. Outputs, objectives and outcomes

The iterative idea of learning presented in these three phases reflects and simplifies other familiar ideas of learning cycles. It also reflects ideas such as flipped learning, especially when the aim of activity is understood to be generative – a matter of producing representations of knowledge that have real purpose – again, part of something and not the end of something.

1. Feedback as stimulus

Feedback is a personalised asset which should be revisited to provide a personal context for future learning activity and practice.

2. Feedback as self and peer assessment in learning

Feedback is a dimension of the negotiation and navigation that characterises exploratory activity. The learner can record and annotate their deliberations (e.g. sketchbooks, lab books, notebooks, sketchnoting, audio notemaking, etc).

3. Feedback as reflection on learning

The third phase of the active learning schema above considers what we are left holding after the activity is over, and the need to curate this. For example, portfolio-based learning and assessments ask the learner to evaluate their learning, not as a backwards-looking closing-down process, but as a metacognitive learning activity. It’s about making sense of activities that can be frenetic and confusing when they are happening. By representing their experience of exploring a topic, the learners process their experience by asking: What have I done? How well did I do? What do I draw from this? What do I need to do next? This process of active reflection can take many forms for the individual or the group, making presentations and producing reports being other assessment strategies that garner feedback as part of reflection on learning.

4. Feedback on assessment

Feedback on assessment is what we mostly discuss and understand feedback to be. As the extensive literature confirms, there are many ways to approach and think about this, but perhaps one key idea in the context of this post is understanding of ideas about feedforward – how, with careful course-focused design and learner development, feedback can motivate, challenge and clarify the student’s understanding of a topic but also, and critically, their understanding of how they learn.

Reflective learning – how one thing leads to another

The second conversation this week in which I turned to this three-phase model of inputs, exploration, and outputs, was looking at the new Reflective Learning project we are running this year. While a key theme in the Course Enhancement Intensive programme we have just run across the University, we will be developing and evaluating best practice in this area. Reflection here, and the idea of self-assessment and self-feedback, is captured in the idea of ‘becoming’ and the need for each and every learner to define and moderate their aspirations and directions. Fittingly, this project is an outcome of the employability in practice project I have been leading for the last two years – one thing leads to another!

Feedback, when understood as an evaluation of activity and as a stimulus to further learning, helps us consider what we should record, how we should use note-making, and how we should understand reflective learning as being about generative learning activities: the beginning of further and deeper learning.

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.
This entry was posted in Active Learning, Assessment & Feedback, Learner Engagement, Literacies and Intelligence, Personal & Professional Development Planning and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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