Feedback and Technology for Learning

general-ict-cloud2One of the most valuable contributions anyone can make to another person’s learning is constructive feedback. Feedback on performance, when effective, is widely considered to be integral to learning. People learn faster and more deeply when they know the strengths and weaknesses of their performances and, most importantly, actions to take to improve future performances.

We all learn from feedback…sometimes the feedback is self-generated from the feelings of success or failure at what was attempted, sometimes from the environment around us, and sometimes from another person or a group. From wherever the feedback originates, we use it to modify our future actions to either reinforce our previous behavior or to change it for the future – using the D-A-R strategy, that is Direct, Assess, Redirect. This is true of all learning, from motor skills, to self-reflection, to cognition of the world around us. This concept of feedback through a Direct, Assess, Redirect process is especially important for students.

This potential to influence future performance is what is known as feed-forward. This strategy aims to ‘increase the value of feedback to the students by focusing comments not only on the past and present, but also on the future – what the student might aim to do, or how to do it differently in the next assignment or assessment if they are to continue to better’ (Hounsell, 2008, p. 5).

In order to generate feed-forward, feedback must not only identify the learner gap between actual and desired performance (by indicating the standard achieved on any given criterion for example) but also provide information needed to close that gap. When specific guidance is provided to close the gap, the feed-forward effect is even greater, and the focus becomes true learning rather than just grades – grades by themselves telling us very little about how we performed and how we could perform better.

This, in my opinion, is academic assessment, and it’s an ongoing – not episodic – process that requires continuous re-evaluation to determine whether teaching and learning processes achieve the goals and objectives defined by faculty and administrators at an institution. When students do not achieve those goals and objectives, changes should be made. And when students succeed in achieving those goals and objectives, perhaps we can conclude that those changes in the teaching and learning process are working. The question is, how do we know what’s working and what’s not?

Part of the answer rests in better understanding assessment and moving beyond the idea that assessment is simply tests or exams. Once we can do that, collaborative technologies can play a vital role in developing a more robust assessment practice – helping to systematize student-learning assessment and offer new ways to conduct assessments that will allow educators to offer richer learning experiences and gather feedback on student performance on a more frequent basis.

The kind of technology I’m talking about is learning assessment technology. This kind of technology that captures the student-teacher interaction, that facilitates the feedback and feed-forward processes, and that can at any given point report out data trends on this process so we can see how effective our teaching and curriculum delivery actually are.

The kind of technology I’m talking about is the kind that puts students at the center. Such technology supports evidence-based learning through outcomes-based learning portfolios, as well as the ability for instructors to communicate more easily with students on the progress of their work; for students to receive that feedback immediately; and for administrators to collect data on this process for purposes of assessing program effectiveness and improving program quality.

With students at the center, assessment should be viewed as a self-reflective learning tool for students and an opportunity for faculty to present concrete advice/guidance/evidence for learning improvement. When collaborative technology is engaged for these purposes, we are able to more easily see a fuller picture of student learning at all levels – for individual students, within and across courses, within and across programs, and, of course, across an entire institution. The technology is built into the teaching process, and the data that comes out of this is a natural byproduct of a more systematized, automated process – allowing for the following benefits:

  • Clarity of Expectations: Assessment technology allows instructors to present assessment criteria clearly within the system, ensuring assignment, course and program expectations are clearly communicated and accessible to all students.
  • Deepened Student Engagement: Assessment technology can also be a boost to student engagement by enabling diverse assessment methods, supporting active learning, and allowing more frequent formative assessment and a wider range of skills to be assessed.
  • Comprehensive Reflection: In addition to learner self reflection, assessment technology provides opportunities for the academic community to self reflect on its learning goals, to determine the degree to which these goals align with student and marketplace needs, and to evaluate if students’ overall performances coincide with the institution’s expectations;
  • Convenience & Transparency: Assessment technology increases flexibility for learners as students can access online assessments at any time and at any place where a connection is available, even on their mobile devices. Plus, administrators have readily available statistics on student performance, and this evidence of student achievement can be used by academic programs to understand the dimensions of student learning when seeking to improve the teaching and learning process.

According to Thomas A. Angelo in “Doing Assessment As If Learning Matters Most,” most of us think assessment should be first and foremost about improving student learning and secondarily about determining accountability for the quality of learning produced. I would agree that putting students’ learning at the center is of prime importance. So while accountability matters, learning matters most and, ultimately, a focus on that should in effect drive quality.

That said, we should more closely consider the value and role of technology in systematizing the process of providing feedback. When we find better ways of doing this, we’ll see that what follows is increased learning and improved student performance, and hence a truly student-centered higher education experience.