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Utilising Formative Feedback in Your Teaching

Why Do I Need to Gather Formative Feedback?

Formative feedback is “an intentional, voluntary, developmental strategy for instructors to receive feedback about their teaching with the goal of better understanding and improving student learning” (Jeffs & Piera, 2016: 7; Jeffs, Paris & Piera, 2018). Formative feedback approaches can open the lines of communication between instructors and students to provide meaningful information on what is and what is not working in student experiences of learning in timely and context-specific ways. By developing clear pathways of gathering and responding to formative feedback from your students you can create learning environments that are built on trust and enable learners to meet learning outcomes.

The Benefits of Formative Feedback

Formative feedback processes can lead to many benefits for both the instructor and the student. At the instructor level it allows you to gain meaningful and focused information on how your students are progressing in the course, what is working for them as learners, what could be adjusted to assist with outcome attainment, and how engaged they are with the instructional strategies being utilised. This enables you to be able to make changes and respond to issues in a timely way as the course progresses to ensure students stay engaged with you and the material.

At the student level, formative feedback offers them the opportunity to self-reflect to become more self-directed in their learning. It encourages them to engage fully and professionally in the development of the learning environment so they can become active participants in the process of their learning. It also allows them to request added clarity on the purpose of instructional strategies that are being utilised.

Building Learning Communities

Formative feedback is an important component of building engaged learning communities where the instructor and students can work together, with clear information, in developing an environment where students can succeed in their learning journey. Developing processes of clear communication between instructor and students assists in attempting to lower the power differential that exists in a learning environment and situates both learner and teacher as collaborators in learning. With active and ongoing approaches to formative feedback embedded across a course, students and instructors can understand how learning is progressing, where students are in learning attainment, and how the environment supports or hinders the learning journey.

Student Engagement and Self-Directed Learning

For students to be successful in their learning it is fundamental that they are fully engaged in their learning journey and can develop the necessary skills to become self-directed learners. Formative feedback approaches can assist in this process if they are developed in such a way that students are encouraged to not only reflect on the course and the instructor, and their strategies, but on themselves as learners. Developing formative processes that encourage students to reflect on themselves as learners and how they are engaging in their learning can assist with metacognitive development and encourage a deeper understanding of how they learn and what they need to be successful. This can give them the tools to develop processes and approaches that can make them more self-directed in their learning and become more active participants in ensuring necessary learning and development is achieved.

Timing Formative Feedback

Formative feedback can be approached in numerous ways and at different times throughout the course. Effective systems develop more continuous engagement by utilising multiple strategies of formative feedback that are relevant at different times in the course. Developing a mix between quick check-ins, using polling or classroom assessment techniques (CATs), along with questionnaires probing learning and engagement at the mid-point of the course, can ensure that information is developed that both instructors and students can act on is received in a continuous way. Approaches that embed pedagogical initiatives like a class representation system or circle as pedagogy are also built on having a continuous process of communication and engagement with students as they progress through the course so that issues can be addressed collaboratively and in the moment. In essence, there is no wrong time to gather formative feedback. The importance is in matching the timing of gathering feedback to the technique you use to ensure you have the feedback that is useful to you and your students.

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How Can I Gather Formative Feedback in My Course?

When you are gathering formative feedback, it is important to consider what information you a looking for. You might consider asking yourself the following questions:

  • Am I looking for information on student learning progression?
  • Am I looking for information on student engagement with the course, the material, or with my instruction?
  • Am I looking for information around impediments to learning within, or outside, the learning environment?
  • Am I looking for information regarding the mode of instruction and student experiences within it?

You may be looking for all of this information, which is fine, but understanding what information you are looking for is an important first step in understanding how you can gather it and how you can use it. This will also allow you to consider the development of a multiple technique approach to feedback that utilises the strengths of different approaches to give you the most valuable feedback to drive action.

Creating an Environment for Formative Feedback

Before gathering formative feedback, it is important to set the environment with your students to ensure you get meaningful feedback. This requires spending class time explaining why you are gathering feedback, how you will be gathering the feedback, and how you will be using it to support learning and the student experience. Ideally you would embed this in the course development process so that the process and reasoning is defined clearly in the course syllabus. Spending time within class to gather feedback is also helpful in defining the importance of the process and remind students of your commitment to use feedback in meaningful ways to support student learning and engagement. In setting the environment for feedback it is also important to offer clear instructions to students on how to engage in feedback processes to ensure you receive appropriate information.


Student Learning and Student Engagement

In gathering information around student learning you have multiple tools that you can utilize. Polling tools within Zoom or classroom response systems can be used for periodic temperature checks on learning to gather information on student learning progression. Various classroom assessment techniques such as Minute Papers (short student feedback on most important learning from a class or resource) or Muddiest Point (short student feedback on the most unclear material in a class) can also be used to garner quick and usable information regarding students’ understanding of content. In gathering information regarding student engagement, questionnaires offer the most appropriate avenue for contextual and deep feedback. There are many strategies that can be utilized such as engagement questions (what makes you feel most/least engaged in the course?) to Start, Stop, Continue (what strategies should I start/stop/continue doing to assist with your learning?) and More, Less, Same (what strategies should I use more/less/same to assist with your learning?). Using open-ended questionnaires to elicit this information will allow students to engage more fully in feedback to offer more focused information on potential changes or additions to the course. Questionnaires can be used at multiple points throughout a course but should not be over-used.

Considering When to Gather this Information

Once you have defined what information you are looking for you should develop a timeline of when it would be most appropriate to gather that information. As you are likely to be looking for multiple forms of information, from student learning as they progress through the course to feedback on instructional strategies and student engagement, it is important to approach your feedback initiatives in a holistic and integrated way. Information of student learning and progression should be spread throughout the course so that you have information on specific content material and its understanding and more ingrained surveys of student course experiences can be scheduled at mid-point or at a few crucial points across the term. When you are developing your plan for gathering your feedback you could consider the following questions:

  • How much time do I need to gather feedback?
  • Should this be gathered in class time or through technological means?
  • What information do I need to give students to complete the feedback?
  • How will I be following up with students about using the feedback?
  • What questions will elicit the information I need?
  • What tools can assist in gathering the information?

Selecting Relevant Formative Feedback Questions

There will be a direct correlation between the quality of questions you ask and the quality of feedback you receive. This makes it essential that you carefully craft the questions to meet the outcome you are hoping to achieve. There are many supportive resources that you can utilize to assist with this process that are outlined below in the section on using different techniques. Some commonly used open-ended feedback questions include:

  • What learning activities and/or materials are the most helpful for your learning in this course? Why?
  • What learning activities and/or materials are the least helpful and why?
  • What specific things could I change to help you with your learning in this course?
  • Where are you encountering challenges in this course?
  • Are you having any difficulties accessing the course materials/activities? If so, can you provide some examples?
  • At what moment were you most engaged as a learner?
  • At what moment were you most distanced as a learner?
  • What surprised you most about the class?

This section was modified from Niagara College’s Centre for Academic Excellence, Design, Develop and Deliver: A Guide to Effective Online Teaching, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International License.

Using Formative Feedback

Once you have gathered your feedback it is important that you develop processes to utilize the feedback and communicate it back to students. This is important as it enables students to understand your responses to the feedback, have clarification of the issues that form an important part of your pedagogical practice and therefore can’t be changed, and know clearly the outcomes of their engagement in the process. In order to build trust in these processes and ensure meaningful feedback is collected, students need to be able to see the outcomes and understand the decisions that have been made. This will give them voice in the classroom, assist in alleviating power-differentials through seeing action taken on their feedback and develop a clearer connection between the instructor and the learner. Taking time out of class to talk through the feedback received and how it will be actioned is an excellent technique in achieving this outcome and it situates the feedback as an important part of the learning process.

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What Techniques Can I Use for Formative Feedback?

Once you have defined your desired outcomes from the formative feedback process you can now choose the techniques that will be most useful in ensuring you get the most meaningful information. In this section we cover a non-exhaustive list of potential techniques, explain their purpose and value, and connect you to various resources that can assist you in developing your feedback approach using these techniques.

Polling Tools as a Formative Technique

Polling tools are excellent means of quickly gathering information about student learning and progression. Whilst they don’t offer substantive information that can allow you to understand the why behind an answer, they give you clear information about student learning and offer insight into content that needs to be reviewed. Polls are quick, flexible, and deliver easily manageable data (Did you understand this? Yes/No; Was this helpful to your learning? Yes/No) that you can action quickly within the class to ensure student understanding of material. Polls aren’t an inclusive strategy in themselves but work well in a multiple technique approach to allow for continuous checks on student learning.

Classroom Assessment Techniques as a Formative Technique

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) offer a myriad of different ways that you can gather meaningful information on student learning. CATs offer techniques for gathering information in the following areas:

  1. Techniques for assessing course-related knowledge and skills:
    1. Assessing prior knowledge, recall, and understanding.
    2. Assessing skill in analysis and critical thinking.
    3. Assessing skill in synthesis and creative thinking.
    4. Assessing skill in problem solving.
    5. Assessing skill in application and performance.
  2. Techniques for assessing learner attitude, values, and self-awareness:
    1. Assessing students’ awareness of their attitudes and values.
    2. Assessing students’ self-awareness as learners.
    3. Assessing course-related learning and study skills, strategies, and behaviours.
  3. Techniques for assessing learner reactions to instruction:
    1. Assessing learner reactions to teachers and teaching.
    2. Assessing learner reactions to class activities, assignments, and materials.

Source: Angelo and Cross, 1993

Across these diverse assessment techniques, CATs offer 50 different strategies that can be utilised at different points to gather different forms of meaningful feedback from students. The comprehensiveness of CATs allows you to use multiple tools to achieve different feedback goals at different points in the course. CATs can be effective ways to gather information intermittently or at regular intervals throughout a course. These non-graded responses from students can be an effective way to gather feedback with more depth than polling.

Questionnaires as a Formative Technique

Questionnaires can be created to elicit formative feedback by creating an anonymous survey within MyLS or survey software Qualtrics. The value of using questionnaires is that it allows you to ask open-ended questions that gather deep feedback on student engagement or learning. By carefully choosing your questions, you can direct the information gathering to the information that is most pertinent in meeting your goals. Along with open-ended questions, outlined above, you can use the following techniques when using student feedback questionnaires in your course:

  • Start, Stop, Continue: Students define the instructional strategies that they want you to start doing, stop doing, or continue doing.
  • More, Less, Same: Students define what instructional strategies they want you to use more, less, or the same.
  • The Four L’s: Students are asked what they liked, learned, lacked, or longed for in their learning.


Class Representation as a Formative Technique

Class representation places formative feedback at the centre of the development of a learning community. Class representation can exist at a class level but can also be developed as a coordinated strategy at the level of the program, department, faculty, or institution. The class representation system brings a collaborative approach to class management. The student representative is the liaison between class and instructor. This approach builds safety for student feedback because it is directed through the medium of the class representative and creates a meaningful structure for student voice, shares responsibility for ensuring clear communication between instructor and class representative, builds weekly information sharing opportunity within course, and is a professional development opportunity for students. Within a class representation approach, formative feedback becomes a continuous process with the class representative getting focused time with the student body to elicit feedback for consideration and discussion with the instructor.

For example, the instructor could depart class 15 minutes before the end and the class representatives would facilitate discussion with students, discuss amongst themselves, and then bring the feedback to you at regular meetings. The class representative also assumes responsibility to communicate back to the student body of the collaborative decisions that have been made as a response to student feedback so that it can be communicated in a way that is clearly understood. This approach can be right-sized to any course (i.e.: one rep per every 50-100 students).


Circle as Pedagogy as a Formative Technique

Circle as Pedagogy is a pedagogical approach that can be taken to build effective systems of feedback and classroom management within a course. “Engaging in circle pedagogy allows for open communication because each person in the Circle can see and hear every other person” (Hill & Wilkinson, 2014, p.185). It creates ongoing, supportive, community-based feedback from all members of the class, building trust within the learning community from the very beginning.

Informed by Indigenous ways of knowing and being, circle pedagogy deconstructs power differential that exists within euro-dominant learning and can be done remotely and face-to-face. “In a Talking Circle, each one is equal and each one belongs. Students in a Talking Circle learn to listen and respect the views of others” (Simpson 1996). It is important to note that engaging with Indigenous ways of knowing and being should be done in consultation with Indigenous colleagues to avoid cultural appropriation.


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