Theoretical Framework for Instructor Feedback Literacy

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Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

by Kristen Mosley

Feedback has long been a “hot topic” –- both the art of giving and receiving feedback is consistently seen in higher education and general occupational psychology literature. Good feedback can feel like both an art and a science, which necessitates not just time and experience but also an acute study of its mechanics. This week’s article is the first of a multi-part series aimed to further develop instructors’ and, ideally, their students’ ability to both give and receive feedback.

As with most weighty subjects, the definition of “feedback” varies across scholars and contexts. Whereas some view it as a consequential product of a piece of work,1 others understand feedback as an ongoing process that iteratively supports both prior and future work2; in this regard, the terms “feed-forward” and “feed-up” have been used to capture the momentum that “feedback” is intended to give.3

Regardless of your orientation towards feedback, the time required to give good feedback only to have it be omitted or unseen can cause great instructor frustration. With this in mind, we’re presenting Carless and Winstone’s (2020) framework for teacher feedback literacy as a first step in understanding what goes into effective instructor feedback.4 However, while this framework is focused on instructor feedback literacy, it ultimately understands feedback as a process involving both instructor and student action and centers a social constructivist view on students’ active use and sense-making of feedback.

Teacher feedback literacy is undergirded by three dimensions:

1. The design dimension: Good feedback starts with good curriculum design, as students are most likely to uptake feedback when they know it will, in fact, support their future work.5  Students tend to prefer formative (prior to the final course/module grade) over summative (after the final course/module grade) feedback,6 which has key design implications for instructors. When designing their courses, instructors should (a) develop assignment and assessment sequences that build upon each other to promote uptake of feedback, (b) provide formative feedback opportunities to encourage students to self-regulate and reflect on their work, and (c) use timely feedback to make expectations clear and avoid student frustration.4

2. The relational dimension: Feedback can elicit strong emotions from both the giver and receiver, which makes the relational aspect of feedback a key focal point. The balance of constructive and honest yet sensitive and supportive can be difficult to strike; however, when an instructor models their own experience with feedback, students’ feedback anxieties may be assuaged.7 Just like good curricular design begets good feedback, so too does an emotionally supportive classroom culture bring about emotionally supportive feedback. Students who are encouraged to ask questions and contribute to the classroom on a regular basis are also more likely to view feedback as another conversational opportunity in their learning.4

3. The pragmatic dimension:  Feedback can feel like it’s all around us—in our end-of-semester reviews, annual reviews, and day-to-day work as instructors. The lack of resources available to provide and engage in worthwhile feedback structures requires pragmatic choices, which is often where trade-offs must take place. Ultimately, when making course decisions, feedback-literate instructors balance the different needs and functions of feedback and consider how the use of technology can support the timeliness of feedback.4 More to come on the use of technology to provide feedback in a later post!

Feedback is a process that should be shouldered by all involved—both instructors and students should take active roles in giving and receiving feedback. Feedback ensures that learning and growth remain consistent facets of the teaching and learning cycle. Come back next week for a focus on student feedback literacy!

1. Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487 

2. Cramp, A. (2011). Developing first-year engagement with written feedback. Active Learning in Higher Education, 12, 113-124. doi:10.1177/1469787411402484

3. Hounsell, D., McCune, V., Hounsell, J., & Litjens, J. (2008). The quality of guidance and feedback to students. Higher Education Research and Development, 27, 55-67. doi:10.1080/07294360701658765

4. Carless, D., & Winstone, N. (2020). Teacher feedback literacy and its interplay with student feedback literacy. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-14. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1782372

5. Zimbardi, K., Colthorpe, K., Dekker, A., Engstrom, C., Bugarcic, A., Worthy, P., Victor, R., Chunduri, P., Lluka, L., & Long, P. (2017). Are they using my feedback? The extent of students’ feedback use has a large impact on subsequent academic performance. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(4), 625-664. doi:10.1080/02602938.2016.1174187.

6. Carless, D. (2020). A Longitudinal Inquiry into Students’ Experiences of Feedback: A Need for Teacher-Student Partnerships. Higher Education Research and Development 39(3), 425–438. doi:10.1080/07294360.2019.1684455.

7. Gravett, K., Kinchin, I., Winstone, N., Balloo, K., Heron, M., Hosein, A., Lygo-Baker, S., & Medland, E. (2019). The development of academics’ feedback literacy: Experiences of learning from critical feedback via scholarly peer review. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. doi:10.1080/02602938.2019.1686749.

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