Currently reading: “Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice” (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006)

Somehow a print of the “Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice” (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006) article ended up on my desk. I don’t know who wanted me to read it, but I am glad I did! See my summary below.

Feedback. I feel like this topic is talked about so much with so few new insights, that I was really reluctant to read another article on it. Usually the rules for feedback are as clear as boring (for really boring, see my 2015 post on the topic…): Feedback should be concrete! Timely! About the observable product or action, not the person! Yada yada yada.

In this article however, the authors explore what teachers can do to support students in becoming “self-regulated learners”, i.e. how we can support students in proactively taking control of their own learning where they make sure they understand the goal, develop strategies, monitor their progress, seek out feedback to course-correct when necessary. They develop a model for how self-regulated learning works, and present 7 feedback principles that support it:

After a teacher has set a task and described it by giving goals or criteria, the student’s work starts. The external task is now processed by the student — based on their motivation to do it and beliefs about whether they can do it, their strategic learning skills, and of course their prior knowledge in the field. On this basis, the student develops their own understanding of the goal (and possibly adapts it to their own goals that might or might not align completely), employs strategies to deal with it, and produces their own learning outcomes. This whole internal self-regulation process is invisible to the teacher. But it is this part we want to influence before — and this is where the feedback loop comes in — while the student produces “externally observable outcomes”, i.e. submits their lab report, which is the one that we can then give feedback on, which will then again be interpreted by the student to refine their understanding of and working on the task.

So how can we influence this internal self-regulation that we cannot even directly observe? Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick (2006) present 7 principles of good feedback practice:

1. Good feedback “helps clarify what good performance is”

Obviously students can only strive towards a goal prescribed by the teacher if they actually understand it the same way the teacher does. But this is often not the case, and we need to work on increasing the overlap between what we want and what the students think we want. We can try to be very explicit in written learning outcomes and rubrics, and we can talk about what we mean, but often that is not enough. Understanding of the goals can be negotiated by, for example, discussing “exemplars” of performance (what’s great about this lab report, what could be improved and how?). Generally, discussions about what goals actually mean are helpful, as is having students apply the goals to something other than their own work to actually grasp what is being assessed.

2. Good feedback “facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning

The goal of feedback should not just be to improve the one specific case where the feedback it given, but way beyond that help students learn, and give them opportunity to practice, how to assess their own work and use that to modify their strategies. One way to do that is to use self-assessment integrated with tutor feedback, which helps students identify and correct more things than just getting the tutor feedback before the self-assessment. The key is to help students making judegments about their own performance relative to the given criteria. This can also be supported by peer-feedback (both giving and receiving) and frequent opportunities for reflection before and after working on tasks.

Another idea is, prior to them submitting a product, to let students choose what kind of feedback they would like to receive that would help them improve.

3. Good feedback “delivers high quality information to students about their learning”

When feedback is given on student work, the goal should be to help them “troubleshoot their own perfomance and self-correct”. For this, all the “boring” feedback advice is relevant: Timely, regularly, corrective advice, constructive criticism, …

One important point to keep in mind though is that very detailed checklists and rubrics might convey the impression that the task (of for example writing a lab report) consists of lots of tiny subtasks, and that they loose track of the bigger picture of how all these criteria are supposed to make one big project great.

Another point is that we also need to consider how feedback will be received, and if students will be able to process everything. The authors say that “three well-thought-out feedback comments per essay [is] the optimum if the expectation [is] that students would act on these comments”. Obviously there needs to be a balance between not overwhelming students, yet still mentioning everything important, but I find this helpful to keep in mind.

For essays specifically, the authors suggest to “play back” what reading the essay did to the teacher to let students understand the impact of their writing, and the possible gap between intentions and outcomes, rather than just providing judgement.

Lastly, one consideration is when/how feedback can be accessed. Online tests, for example, can be done whenever the students want to, and they can be done in a way that feedback is provided right then and there, so it might seem more relevant than getting feedback on something that was submitted months ago.

4. Good feedback “encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning”

Similarly to gaining an understanding of the goals through discussion with teacher and peers, also feedback will be undestood more completely, and thus be more likely to have an influence, when there are opportunities to discuss it with teachers and/or peers.

This can (and often does) happen by peer instruction after voting on questions. And it can be scaled up by the teacher discussing specific examples of feedback they have given with the class, or by sending students into small groups to discuss larger feedback on larger work products than just a correct/false response to a multiple-choice question (but here we need to pay attention to doing it in a way that doesn’t leave students embarassed or discouraged!). Especially discussions with peers help students see new perspectives, approaches, and strategies. Often feedback that a student produces in response to another student’s work also has an effect on how they reflect on their own work. One way to facilitate such discussions might be to ask students to find one or two examples of feedback comments they found especially useful/unclear and discuss how they helped/what else they would need.

5. Good feedback “encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem”

When students have a fixed mindset relating to a specific task, your class, their whole university experience, any negative experience might feel as confirmation that they are just not cut out for what they are trying to do. Students with growth mindsets, on the other hand, might see a challenge and be excited to work to meet it.

To a certain extent, we can influence how students perceive feedback by how we do assessment. High-stakes assessment tend to shut down mastery goals and lead to focus on just passing this one challenge, and grades often lead only to comparison with peers and not to a focus on how to learn from the feedback. But if we respond positively to effort and praise good strategies, and make sure that it is clear that we are evaluating a performance in a specific context, not the worth of a person, this can encourage growth mindsets.

Of course, in the systems we are in, sometimes we have to grade performance. But one idea might be to only do that after students have responded to feedback and had the opportunity to resubmit.

6. Good feedback “provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance”

The idea of not just giving feedback at the end, but giving students the opportunity to resubmit, is actually an essential part of the feedback loop. Because if students don’t get the opportunity to resubmit, how will we know if the feedback did have any effect at all?

Of course, “submission” can mean different things, not just a two-stage assessment, and feedback loops can be built into the process before the official submission, if the task already requires peer feedback, or is put together from different components.

Here, my favourite tip is to “involve students in groups in identifying their own action points in class” based on feedback they received.

7. Good feedback “provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching”

“Information about students only becomes available when the learning outcomes are translated into public performances and products”. So what we know about student learning really depends on us asking the right questions first, so that their answers can inform our understanding of their mastery. Minute papers, where teachers ask for example about the main point of an upcoming lecture and collects responses afterwards, are a good method to help students focus, but at the same time let the teacher know about how well what they thought they were teaching was actually received. This can then inform future teaching.

So this is my summary of the article. Really helpful to think about the different facets of feedback! What’s your main take-away?

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education, 31(2), 199-218.

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