While it isn’t the sexiest of topics in education, or even in the field of assessment, the task of giving feedback is more complex, and can certainly be more influential on learners’ progress, than assessors usually realise. My own experience as an external examiner in professional education and a vocational assessor in further education has highlighted that this topic needs a lot more time and attention.

The type, tone, quality and timing of feedback can, in fact, make or break a learner’s confidence in a subject because they need to feel that their tutor is invested in helping them to reach their potential.

Moreover, feedback is consistently ranked in the worst performing areas on course experience questionnaires and surveys in the context of both further and higher education programmes. For example, students at numerous higher education institutions have cited strong emotional reactions in student surveys— both positive and negative — that feedback produced. Good feedback encouraged them and made them feel appreciated, while poor feedback simply lead to frustration.

Of course, there is also some contention that learners do not even notice or take onboard the feedback they receive and, conversely, that tutors and assessors are not sufficiently explicit when giving feedback to learners. Nevertheless, it can be deflating to spend days or weeks on a high stakes project only to receive vanilla feedback that sounds like anyone could have written it, let alone an expert in the subject.

High quality, timely feedback for learners on apprenticeships is even more critical because of the focus on summative (End-Point) assessment rather than continuous/formative assessment (i.e. assessment for learning), which is how apprenticeships were previously assessed.

Portfolio feedback, vendor qualification scores, lesson time and sporadic review sessions are the only opportunities on an apprenticeship programme to detect the learner’s level of understanding and provide developmental feedback which could impact the final grade.

“All assessment is good if we get good feedback. If we don’t it’s useless.”

Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development (ascd.org)

Feedback Best Practice

For the benefit of inexperienced assessors, there are at least six different types of educational assessment (which I’ll detail in another article) but whatever the type, assessments generally have one of two purposes:

  1. Assessment of learning (summative)
  2. Assessment for learning (formative)

Assessments for learning – also known as assessment as learning – assesses a learner’s comprehension and understanding of a skill or lesson during the learning and teaching process. By contrast, assessment of learning is summative, i.e. done at the end of a unit or module, and assesses the learner’s achievement against a class or national benchmark or standard.

Here are some practical tips to motivate your learners to actually process and apply your formative feedback (assessment for learning) and to help reinforce their engagement with the course:

  • Always start from a position of goodwill – assume that the learner you are feeding back to has the best of intentions with their work, and communicate with your own best intentions in return. 
  • Focus on observations rather than interpretations – tell people what you saw, rather than giving them your analysis of their behaviour. 
  • When phrasing your observations, use ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ e.g, “I felt that” rather than you “you did this”
  • Concentrate on behaviours which can be adapted rather than personality traits which are inherent in the learner’s character. 
  • Give specific examples of the behaviour you are referring to by stating the facts without making a judgement
  • Encourage reflection by asking questions rather than making statements e.g,
    • How do you think that aspect of the project went?
    • What would you do differently to secure a more positive outcome if that situation happened again?
  • Avoid giving mixed messages. Starting a sentence positively and then adding a ‘but’ or  ‘however’ weakens the statement and lessens trust.
  • Be direct and concise so it’s easier for the person receiving the feedback to absorb the key points.
  • Monitor your tone. It’s easy for written communication to be misinterpreted so humour and sarcasm are best avoided.

Finally, remember that whether working in quality assurance, assessment or programme delivery, our role in the learner’s journey is to help them gain a new and objective view of their own performance in order to maximise their impact in future projects and in their professional life in the long term.

If you have any feedback tips or strategies to add to this list, please leave them in comments and share the article to help others.