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College Quarterly
Fall 2012 - Volume 15 Number 4
Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding it and doing it well
David Boud and Elizabeth Molloy
New York: Routledge, 2013
Reviewed by Bill Hunter

Boud and Molloy have assembled a collection of 13 chapters on higher education feedback and assessment written by a total of 21 authors. It would stretch credulity to suggest that a reviewer can fully critique a work of this magnitude and diversity.

What do postsecondary students want to know about their academic performance? What do instructors think the students need to know? What kind of information should instructors provide and in what form? When should they provide that information? Feedback is a critical component of the learning process.  To establish that for yourself, test the old maxim “practice makes perfect” with this little experiment (it can be a thought experiment if you prefer):

  1. Choose a length from 9 to 25 centimetres
  2. Put on a blindfold and try to draw a line of that length
  3. Try again.
  4. And again and again—let’s say 15 trials.
  5. Measure the lines and record the results.
  6. How much improvement did you see?

The odds are pretty good that your later lines are no closer to your chosen length that the first few. Now, do the experiment again, but this time, have a friend measure each line and tell you how long it is.  It is now likely that you improve with practice. But it is not just practice—it is practice with feedback.

The right kind of feedback is not always that obvious and it may differ depending on the kind of learning, the instructional objectives or even the community in which the learning is to take place. In a section on design of instruction in their major review of research on learning, Bransford, Brown, & Cocking (2000) touched on the way feedback relates to different instructional models:

Studies of adaptive expertise, learning, transfer, and early development show that feedback is extremely important (see Chapters 2, 3, and 4). Students’ thinking must be made visible (through discussions, papers, or tests), and feedback must be provided. Given the goal of learning with understanding, assessments and feedback must focus on understanding, and not only on memory for procedures or facts (although these can be valuable, too). (p.140)

They also address the way in which community can impact the design of learning and feedback:

An emphasis on community is also imortant [sic] when attempting to borrow successful educational practices from other countries. For example, Japanese teachers spend considerable time working with the whole class, and they frequently ask students who have made errors to share their thinking with the rest of the class. This can be very valuable because it leads to discussions that deepen the understanding of everyone in the class. However, this practice works only because Japanese teachers have developed a classroom culture in which students are skilled at learning from one another and respect the fact that an analysis of errors is fruitful for learning (Hatano and Inagaki, 1996). Japanese students value listening, so they learn from large class discussions even if they do not have many chances to participate. The culture of American classrooms is often very different—many emphasize the importance of being right and contributing by talking. Teaching and learning must be viewed from the perspective of the overall culture of the society and its relationship to the norms of the classrooms. To simply attempt to import one or two Japanese teaching techniques into American classrooms may not produce the desired results.

Because much of the research on feedback and assessment is situated in the United States, it is refreshing to encounter a work that comes from a broader selection of academic communities. While 12 of the 21 chapter authors are from Australia, the others come from Canada, England, Hong Kong, Scotland, Spain, and the United States. As a group, they call on postsecondary educators to “rethink” feedback, so there is valuable knowing that their perspectives have been shaped by and reflect a wide variety of national systems.

In the first two chapters, Molloy and Boud set the stage and challenge four common feedback nostrums:

  1. All feedback is good feedback
  2. The more the merrier
  3. Feedback is telling
  4. Feedback ends in telling

They want postsecondary educators to understand that these common beliefs, like my “practice makes perfect” example above, oversimplify the meaning and use of feedback. They go on to define two aspects of a more nuanced sense of feedback: “Mark 1” emphasizes that it is important to consider how feedback is used by learners to improve performance and by faculty both to assist students in that process and to improve their teaching practice, and Mark 2 stresses the role of learners as active seekers and users of feedback who must be engaged in the design and use of feedback systems. This is clearly a substantial deviation from the traditional perspective of feedback as consisting entirely of either marks or commentary provided by the instructor.

In the third chapter, David Nicol draws on principles of cognitive psychology to describe a variety of ways in which learners (and instructors) can foster active and positive engagement with feedback (including learner-created feedback) to insure that students take significant and meaningful roles in putting feedback to work to improve their performance.

Chapter 4 provides a valuable reminder that feedback stirs emotional response and suggests ways to ensure that the process engenders more positive than negative emotions, particularly with an aim toward improving the ways learners receive and act on feedback.

Other chapters focus on socio-cultural considerations in feedback, the role that trust plays in feedback systems, improving written feedback, and consideration of special cases like feedback in digital environments or clinical procedural skills simulations.  Chapters 10-12 address sources of feedback including how to deal with multi-sources systems, peer assessment, and consumer-generated feedback (e.g., from patients when students work in a clinical setting).

This is an impressive range of topics and the individual chapters provide evocative and sometimes provocative thoughts on both grand ideas about feedback and specific suggestions about how to improve feedback systems. That is to say, the book is a rare combination of stimulating academic discussion and pragmatic advice of direct use to practitioners, both instructors and learners. While the work is clearly aimed at postsecondary instructors, the focus on learners as active participants in the creation and use of feedback means that it could also be of great value to college or university students and to the high school teachers and counselors who help them prepare for their postsecondary careers.

In fact, in the final chapter, which pulls everything together in the form of questions that would help planners to develop better feedback systems, Boud and Molloy make a strong case for why students are a good audience for their work:

Learners must have an active role in feedback. If they are passive recipients of inputs from others, feedback for learning is not occurring. It is only the learner who can ultimately act to change what they do. Students must therefore develop the skills of engagement, including seeking feedback, self-evaluating, and making sense of internal and external judgments, at the earliest stage. (p.203)

In light of this, instructors have a clear responsibility: “Feedback processes must be specifically designed to mobilize student activity” (p. 203). Of course, to be effective, such a change would be better served by an institutional commitment to improving feedback systems.

If I were to look for a fault in this work, it would be that the message begins to get tiresome by the time the book is finished. The focus is singular and even though the individual chapters all have their special directions and their particular contributions, the main message about students’ active engagement in feedback processes is reiterated throughout. That is a small price to pay for a work that has the potential not only to change how instructors think about feedback but also to provide them with the specific direction they need to change the systems they currently use.

References:

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9853#toc

Hatano, G., & Inagaki, K. (1986).Two courses of expertise.In H. Stevenson, H. Azuma, and K. Hakuta, eds., Child Development and Education in Japan.New York: W.H.Freeman.


Bill Hunter is full professor, Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. He can be reached at bill.hunter@uoit.ca.

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