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Feedback and active learning


Why feedback is important and why friends and other students may be good at giving it.

Advice about giving feedback

Advice about receiving feedback

Action Learning



Feedback is receiving other people's ideas about what we think we have learnt. It is called feedback because it is supposed to be part of a loop that starts with our action, gets a message fed back in terms of criticism, and leads to us thinking about the criticism so that we adjust our future actions.

To get feedback on something you have done is to get comments on it. It is called feedback because the comments are a result of your actions (eg writing an essay) and they should feed back to your actions (eg by improving your essay).

Another example of feedback is the comments of students on their courses. This feeds back to tutors, who try to improve the courses.

Feedback on a student's work can come from friends, other students, tutors or others. You should learn how to get useful feedback from others and how to use it to improve your work.

But feedback can also come from yourself to yourself. This is called reflection, thinking back about what you have done. You should learn to read your own essays and give yourself feedback on what you could do to improve them.

Feedback is like a loop or circle:

  • you start with what you do
  • you go round to what someone says about what you do, or what you think about what you have done.
  • this leads you to alter what you do
  • you may then get more feedback and carry on improving.
This idea of feedback is taken from electronics and biology where feedback is the modification of a process by its own results.

go to Kolb's learning cycle

Why feedback is important.

Seeking other people's comments on our written work is an elaboration of what we do as individuals when we draft something. When you make a draft, you then
reflect on it, and redraft in the light of your reflections.

There is thus a loop or circle to what we do. Staring with the action of drafting, reflecting on our draft leads us back to drafting again.

Feedback from other people adds their comments to the loop.

It should be clear from this that you can take active steps to improve an essay without getting feedback from other people. You can do this by reading your own essay through, observing what it fails to communicate to you, reflecting on why it fails to do so, working out a way to improve it, redrafting, reading it through... and so on.

What is the point of someone else reading your essay?

Things that we do by ourselves take place in our private world where we often see what we want to see and do not always see clearly. Asking someone else to read and comment on your essay puts it into the real world of readers.

It is a good idea to think about what you expect to get from other people when you ask them to read your essay.

Partly, it will depend on who they are. We could divide people who give feedback into

  • experts (tutors, for example) and
  • non-experts (such as other students or friends).
Feedback from experts and feedback from non-experts are both valuable and should support one another.

Non-experts should be asked to focus on how the author explains the subject and develops the argument, rather than on the correctness of the essay's content.

Let us say the essay subject is Hobbes. Your mother may know nothing about Hobbes, but she may be able to tell you if you have clearly explained the points you make.

Non-experts can be better than experts at seeing which parts of an essay are difficult to understand. These are often parts where the writer's thinking is confused. In this respect, fellow students who are not doing the same subject as you may be your most helpful readers.

The non-expert reader should reflect back to the writer what the essay says to the reader. He or she should

  • point out areas that confuse or mislead
  • help the writer find gaps or inconsistencies in the argument
  • identify the aspects of the essay that were helpful

    Talking to a reader should help the writer to highlight the essay's strengths and strengthen its weak parts.

    Listening to criticism is usually an emotional experience. If feedback is to be a benefit, neither the writer nor the reader should ignore or try to avoid the emotions. Learning to cope with them constructively is part of learning.

    Points About Essays for Student Groups to Check


    Surveyors make a mark on stone with an arrow pointing upwards to a horizontal line, with a number that indicates the height above sea level. This is called a benchmark. (Perhaps because it looks something like the side view of a bench with two angular legs).

    By analogy, a benchmark is a point of reference, a standard, or something to measure by:

    We use such benchmarks in giving and receiving feedback. Here, for example, is the feedback on a student's essay in which I have highlighted the words and phrases that give one a point of reference for assessing the essay.

      I agree your suggested mark because I found your essay competent and well focused with a clear introduction that related well to the content and structure of the essay, and adequate referencing. Closer referencing to the texts could have lifted the grade to a nine because it would have shown the reader the evidence for your interpretation of the difference between Hobbes and Locke. In what you said about reason I thought you had the possibility of an argument which you could have made explicit in the introduction and carried through in the body of the work. You have laid solid lower second foundations and, by improving the evidence for what you are saying, and developing arguments, you should be able to build towards upper seconds.
    The terms that are highlighted are all technical terms that help us to measure the quality of an essay.

    You will find that most of the highlighted terms relate to features on the Essay Marking Guide. By going from the benchmark to the Guide you are able to assess the quality of your own work.

    Action Learning

    What I have said about feedback is largely based on internet document in which Robert Brown applies Action Learning to writing articles for publication in scholarly journals.

    Action Learning is a system that draws on the idea of Active Learning that we found in Kolb's learning cycle.

    Action Learning adds features.

    In particular, Action Learning involves other people looking at what we have done. It calls this the "real world".

    Action learning is cyclic. It is about:
    1. taking action in the real world
    2. reflecting, on the results of the action
    3. drawing conclusions from reflection
    4. planning how to do it better next time
    1. then repeating the cycle
    go to feedback

    With writing, it means:

    1. Doing some writing
    2. Reading & thinking about the writing
    3. Reviewing it to see which parts work and which parts do not work
    4. deciding what needs to be changed,
    1. repeating the cycle by making a new draft
    Action learning involves other people as readers and reviewers, as well as the writer. Brown recommends that authors form learning sets

    "A learning set is a group that meets regularly to talk about common problems and to look for solutions. A learning set of authors provides face-to-face reviewing by friends, most of whom lack preconceptions about the content of a paper or its context."

    "...the learning set is not a substitute for review by experts... The two are entirely complementary, so all authors should... get expert comment... in parallel with the activities of the learning set. Advice from experts outside the set and advice from non-experts within the set will both alert authors to important points that need to be attended to, but they will focus on different things, so neither should be ignored."

    He has two guiding principles for forming sets:

    "... go for diverse sets. Sets drawn from within a discipline tend to ... not ask the "dumb" questions that outsiders sometimes ask ... which can ... lead to important insights.

    ... the ideal set size is five"

    He says this because he thinks there need to be a range of divergent views and that the set should not be too big to allow everyone time to speak.

    More to follow...

    Advice about giving gentle feedback

    Describe the facts - Do not attack the person

      "You did not bring the notes we agreed you would"
    is much more likely to have a constructive effect than
      "You are lazy and unreliable"

    And it is very clear which of the following is gentle and which offensive:

      "The essay does not have an introduction"

      "The essay should have an introduction - Stupid!"

    If you describe what you actually see and hear it will reduce the need for the other person to react defensively.

    Describe your own thoughts and feelings rather than the other person's.

      "I felt intimidated when you argued your point"
    is less threatening than:
      "You were very aggressive".

    Similarly, you could say

      "I could not follow your argument. Could you explain it?"

    rather than

      "Your essay is very confused"

    Be specific rather than general

      "I lost interest when you spent several minutes finding your data"

    focuses on the particular problem. whereas

      "You are disorganised"
    is a general attack on the other person's character.

      "I could not understand what you are saying at this point in the essay"

    is more helpful than

      "I could not understand your essay"

    Give honest feedback, politely

      "I understand your essay"

      "Your essay is rubbish"

    May be equally unhelpful in different ways. The second is offensive. The first is encouraging if true, but very unhelpful if false. In most cases the inoffensive but helpful reply will be:

      "I am clear about these parts of your essay, but I do not fully understand these parts"

    Only give feedback about behaviour that can be controlled.

    It is not helpful to comment on someone's lisp. Hopefully, you would not do this. But, remember, that there are many things that it is easy for some people to control, and much more difficult for other people. For example:

    It is unhelpful to just criticise spelling when the person may have considerable spelling difficulties. A pencil line round spelling mistakes you recognise, and the correct spelling in the margin, is usually appreciated.

    Give feedback when it is asked for

    Giving feedback is more effective when it is requested than when it is offered unsolicited.

    You can ask someone, "Would you like some feedback?", but if they say no, then you should not impose it.

    Check your feedback with others

    Give other people in the team the opportunity to disagree with your feedback or to qualify it. See if they noticed and felt the same things, or if they saw things differently.

    Give feedback promptly, if you can

    In general feedback is most useful at the earliest opportunity after the given behaviour. But some feedback may need more careful consideration. It may be better to take a copy of someone's essay and give careful feedback later.

    Get feedback on your feedback

    Check that you have communicated your feedback clearly. You could ask the person to rephrase your feedback to see if it corresponds closely to what you intended.

    Giving Feedback


    Listen to the feedback. Try to understand the other person's feelings.

    Give the feedback serious consideration and weigh up the consequences of changing or not changing. Do not reject it immediately.

    Express your thoughts and feelings about feedback and about possible changes in your behaviour, for example:

      "What you say feels about right but if I tried what you are suggesting then I would probably feel ..."
    Tell the person about whether you intend to try to change, and in what ways.

    Tell the person what she or he could do to help you to change. For example:
      "If you notice me getting like that again, can you give me a quiet nudge?"
    Express appreciation for the concern. Say:
      "Thank you for the feedback."

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