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Time-friendly strategies to improve feedback

Since most forms of traditional feedback are quite labour-intensive, the prospect of trying something new isn’t enticing if its main consequence is to add significantly to university teachers’ already heavy workloads.

But there are “time-friendly” ways that lecturer and tutors can boost the feedback their students get.  These aren’t, it should be stressed, an outright replacement for existing feedback.  They can however be used alongside existing feedback, or as part of a change in the overall mix of kinds of feedback available within a given course or module. And they aren’t, of course, entirely effort-free: you’ll need to make some ‘capital’ investment in a new approach if it’s to reap low- or zero-input benefits in the longer term.

a.  Fuller student engagement with feedback

One cluster of options focuses on trying to increase the impact of current feedback. The aim is to develop students’ capacity, as individuals, to take an active role in engaging with feedback – by becoming better at interpreting and applying it.

Possibilities worth considering are assessment dialogues, engaging with criteria and standards, the use of exemplars to firm up students’ grasp of what is looked for in work graded A or B or C, and the use of self-generated feedback to foster students’ capacity to self-evaluate and manage their learning.

And as students become better-acquainted with assessment criteria and standards in your subject area and more skilled in self-evaluation, why not experiment with elective feedback? In this option, the onus is on students to indicate what feedback they’d most value from you on a particular assignment or assessment. Elective feedback, in other words, doesn’t call for more time from you, but can help you to use the time available to you for comment to maximum effect.

b.  Student-enriched feedback

The second cluster of options aims to nurture students’ own capacity to generate feedback, and so, alongside tutor feedback, enlarges and enriches the pool of feedback on which students can draw. Supplementary feedback can be generated directly, in the form of peer feedback.  It can also be generated indirectly, through feedback-like proxies such as collaborative assignments and on-display learning, as well as through activities such as co-revising assignments and editing and redrafting.

c.  Refocusing the feedback mix

A third group of options entails trade-offs in how you currently allocate time in providing feedback to students. One such possibility is to blend individualised comments with whole-class feedback. That would mean relatively less time was available for individualised comment, but would be to students’ benefit if the whole-class feedback aimed to complement and enlarge on individualised comments — for instance, by  highlighting good examples of introductions, conclusions, structuring of subject-matter, presentation of diagrams, referencing, and so on.

Shifting from feedback to feedforward assignments (in other words, commenting on students’ work pre- rather than post-submission) also has immense potential, but could in some instances involve a greater initial investment of time to make the shift, depending on the existing course structure. Similarly, recycling written comments or adopting a strategy akin to screencasts could bear fruit too, where the costs of doing so were not unduly large.

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