Handling feedback

At the end of last week, I got my first ever bit of listener feedback (family members not included).

Hello? Hello?

From time to time, I get asked to opine on the local BBC radio station on matters of local and national importance. It’s a good way to engage with our community and a good opportunity for me to practise speaking off-the-cuff, since we don’t rehearse the questions beforehand.

Any how, this time I was being asked about a change in policy by the leadership of the County Council on personal allowances. This followed a bit of a campaign by local media, which I’d noticed at the time, but not fully explored, as it’s not particularly relevant to my research or teaching.

So on I went, talked about how I saw it all and what was at work here (media pressure, internal party dissent, etc.). The presenter seemed happy, so job done.

But when I arrived at the office, there was a voicemail waiting for me.

The caller introduced herself as the mother of someone thinking of coming to study with us, and said she was concerned by my ‘simplistic’ analysis of the case. She knew someone involved, who had told her that there was some personal politics to the whole situation and that this was the main driver of the change in policy. She was concerned that all our teaching might suffer from such over-simplification. Her sign-off was “that’s just something I wanted to say, so thank you.”

I found this really frustrating, on a number of levels.

Firstly, while I was happy to accept that I had simplified matters, especially as I was ignorant of the factor she mentioned, I did feel that not to have mentioned something that is not in the public domain (and I checked) was a bit harsh. Highly popular as I am, I don’t have contacts in the local Tory party, so I was being judged by a yardstick that I would struggle to attain.

Secondly, the linkage between what I said in a radio interview of 3 minutes and what I might say in a module with 22 contact hours, assorted online work and other activities seems tenuous. Sadly, I’ve now done enough media to know that interviewers are looking for brevity and conciseness, rather than endless nuance. Likewise, I’ve certainly done enough teaching to know how to use the time available to maximise student reflection and criticality, so that anything I contribute is dealt with in a considered manner.

And thirdly, the lady didn’t leave me any good option for talking with her about it. She’d expressed an opinion, I would like to respond to it, but unless I can get the radio station to broadcast an appeal for her to phone me back, I’m left with writing this post instead. If we’d been able to talk, then I might have been able to talk it through: that would be partly to reassure her about her daughter’s education with us, but more to talk through her understanding of the original story.

All of this clearly relates back to how we deal with students. Do we evaluate students on an equitable basis? Do we extrapolate unfairly from individual incidents? And do we provide means to continue the dialogue with the student?

Each of these questions needs to be considered when giving feedback, so it’s worth spending some time reflecting on it. Addressing them isn’t that difficult, but it’s also easy for us to forget that often we will have access to privileged information that’s not generally known, or that we often see the feedback form as the end of matters, rather than a beginning.

Ultimately then, the feedback I got has been of use, because it’s helped me share the wider point with you. I’d still like to talk with the caller, though.

3 Replies to “Handling feedback”

  1. Great anecdote, especially because we so often fail to reflect on the feedback we give and receive in life outside the classroom. Evaluating students in an equitable fashion, as you mention, is a tricky subject. Equitable for whom or in light of what? Should we use the same objectives for an ESL student as we do for a native speaker? What about the student who is pushing the envelope in terms of their intellectual capabilities in contrast to one who is simply phoning it in, even if their work is the same? As a result, feedback should be personal and equitable insofar that it applies to the individual learner. I certainly agree that feedback should start and sustain the conversation. There’s nothing word than handing back an essay, lab, or other assessment to a student with marks and commentary only to have that work sit in the bottom of the student’s book bag for the remainder of term. There are several frameworks that can be adapted for student feedback (Ritchhart: http://goo.gl/Qt42qT; Barnes: http://goo.gl/NBcees)-I tend to use the latter most often. There’s also ample research (Hattie, 2009: http://goo.gl/LXaN8n; Quinton and Smalbone, 2010: http://goo.gl/LdRQlu) which highlight the ways in which cycles of feedback contribute to a host of positive learning outcomes for students.

    In summary (and consistant with Barnes’ SE2R); I liked your post. I think your use of real-world experience was a provocative way to suggest larger points about the use of feedback in classrooms. I do think that you could have expanded the discussion and made the connection to your own classroom in a more detailed. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

  2. Charles

    Thanks for your feedback. I acknowledge that I didn’t connect back to the classroom as much as I could, but as so often, I worry about over-extrapolation from a single event (not so much as to stop me writing 600 words on it, obviously). But some points are worth adding here.

    Equity is very hard; indeed, one could argue it is ultimately illusory and that any assessment of work is an intrinsically subjective process. However, by using argue grade descriptors (both generic and specific), it is possible to scaffold assessment and feedback to particular elements that the student can work with. Thus, my students have not only the university’s grade descriptors (https://www.surrey.ac.uk/learningandteaching/strategy/University_of_Surrey_Grade_Descriptors.pdf), but also my guidance on what I am looking for in each piece of assessment.

    Over-extrapolation tends not to be an issue within modules, nor so much in degree classifications, given the tight limits now imposed on exam boards in such affairs. Where it is an issue is in things like writing references. Here the temptation is to base your judgement on what looks like a moment of insight and inspiration, rather than weighing all your know of a student.

    And continuing the dialogue means following up the return of work in class (perhaps with some general observations/patterns) and – when appropriate – individual discussions with students. In some cases, that might also mean talking with their personal tutor to see if there’s a more general pattern at work.


    1. Simon, I certainly agree with you that some form of target and descriptor-one that the student works with regularly-can help address the equity issue. As an International Baccalaureate teacher, examiner, and curriculum developer, I operate on both sides of the grade descriptor fence for IB Global Politics. My feedback for students focuses on the learning objectives/targets/qualitative descriptions rather than the numerical values. Its funny the lengths students (and some parents) will go to to try to get the “highest score” rather than to focus on the deeper points in the descriptions. I do think that such frameworks and rubrics are the starting point of the conversation and assessment, not the final word. Students should have continuous opportunities to revise their work in light of instructor feedback as well as their evolving understanding of the targets, descriptors, what have you. In addition, one student’s “5” (or “80-89” at your school) may look profoundly different than another’s. One should rightly take individual development and intellectual progress into account. Granted, I have the luxury of time with 16-18 year olds-two years of coursework to build skills and understanding in world politics-where university instructors generally have only 16 weeks or so. But if the goal is to develop inquisitive individuals who are interested in deep learning in our discipline, more and frequent formative feedback and less grading is certainly the way to go.


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