Feedback in assessment and science

Assessment experts get terribly excited about the effectiveness, or otherwise, of  feedback. We like to think that our ideas in this area are new, but they’re not. This afternoon I was re-reading the paper by Arkalgud Ramaprasad (first published in Behavioral Science back in 1983) which, in my interpretation, says that information provided can only be described as feedback when it makes a difference.

But yet we persist in talking about feedback that we, as teachers, ‘give’ to our students. We know that this will never be effective unless students act on it, but yet we continue to be confused in our language and our thinking.  We talk about feedback as transmission not process.  I did it in writing the page about myself for this blog a few minutes ago. I said ‘We also wanted to be able to give our students instantaneous feedback – so we decided to use interactive online assessment.’  Our students tell us that they find our feedback ‘useful’ (though evidence for the use they actually make of this ‘useful’ feedback is patchy). That’s nice, but it does rather encourage our mistaken thinking that we, the teachers, are more in the driving seat than is actually the case.

I’m a physicist and I want to be able to use the same definition of feedback in my life as a teacher of science and as one who assesses and is assessed. So I looked at the definition of feedback in the OU’s level 1  module S104 Exploring Science. Book 1 page 96 says behavoiur where a change in one quantity causes changes in others that eventually leads to a further change in the original quantity is known as feedback. Positive feedback acts to accentuate any initial changes [examples are childbirth – messy – and runaway global warming, in which, for example, rising temperatures cause permafrost to melt and so the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere increase and increase and increase – scary and perhaps rather political]. Negative feedback acts to maintain a system in a state of balance [examples are easier to find and more comfortable to live with – the most common example is of a thermostat controlling the central heating system in your house]. So positive feedback doesn’t really have anything to do with giving our students nice comments; negative feedback is not about saying ‘you stupid idiot’. This amused Ramaprasad and it amuses me.

More significantly, in science, if the feedback doesn’t make a difference it isn’t feedback at all. So all we have to do is to remember that the same is true of feedback in assessment. Now how difficult is that?

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2 Responses to Feedback in assessment and science

  1. Pingback: Feedback on students assignments « Mikris's Blog

  2. Sally. Many thanks for your blog and this entry which should make us all a little more careful how we use this word. Presumably we should draw a distinction between the comments we make, either directly, or by proxy through any kind of automated system, are until they make a difference when we can legitimately call them feedback.

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