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What is feedback? It turns out that’s more of a contentious question than I expected. And I expected it to be fairly contentious…

CRADLE Director Professor David Boud recently chaired a symposium on feedback at the EARLI SIG 1 conference in Helsinki. The symposium tried to shift our thinking about feedback from a focus on ‘feedback information’, which is things like comments on student work, toward what students actually do with that information.

The symposium consisted of three papers. The sparks started flying during my presentation, which contained the following definition:

“Feedback is a process in which learners make sense of information about their performance and use it to enhance the quality of their work or learning strategies.”

A/Prof. Phillip Dawson presenting a definition of feedback

Photo: Joanna Tai

This definition came out of the OLT-funded Feedback for Learning project, led by A/Prof Michael Henderson at Monash. I was presenting some findings from that project, mostly focusing on our recent journal article about staff and student perceptions of effective feedback.

The challenge was, not everybody agreed that feedback was a process; some attendees viewed feedback as just the information. There was also significant debate about if the definition should mandate that students need to use the feedback information for it to be called ‘feedback’.

The core idea of the symposium – that we need to study how students use feedback information and what effects it has – was well received. Dr Naomi Winstone from the University of Surrey presented on the barriers and enablers to adopting feedback practices in line with such a view of feedback. CRADLE Honorary Professor David Carless (University of Hong Kong) presented on longitudinal work he has been conducting into the student experience of feedback.

CRADLE Honorary Professor Ernesto Panadero (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid) was discussant for the symposium. Ernesto is my European assessment BFF.

Dr Ernesto Panadero making a presentation

Photo: Joanna Tai

He did an excellent job of identifying some of the challenges in the different definitional views, which he said partially stemmed from the different perspectives of pedagogical researchers and psychological researchers.

You could say this symposium resulted in a lot of useful feedback. Or is it feedback information? That all depends on how you define feedback.