Feedback as a Learning-Oriented Assessment Practice: Principles, Opportunities, and Challenges
Daniel M. K. Lam
Feedback has been argued to be one of the most influential forces on learning, and is a key element in learning-oriented assessment (LOA). Within the field of second language learning, there has been a longstanding tradition of research on corrective feedback, as well as a growing body of research on feedback for L2 writing. However, while recent years saw a growing interest in the development and assessment of L2 interactional competence (IC) (e.g., Plough et al., 2018; Salabury & Kunitz, 2019), there is relatively little work on how to design and implement feedback to help develop learners’ IC (Dunlop, 2017; Nakatsuhara et ah,
2018). This chapter discusses and exemplifies how we may design feedback materials and activities for IC as an LOA practice. I will first provide an overview of the role of feedback in learning and LOA, and outline some principles of useful feedback practices. I will then illustrate how these principles might be applied in designing feedback materials and activities for IC. This will be followed by a discussion of some practical challenges and further considerations in feedback processes. The chapter concludes by outlining some ways forward.
The Role of Feedback in Learning and LOA
Feedback within the context of teaching and learning has been commonly defined as a kind of information that “provides the [learner] with direct, useable insights into current performance, based on tangible differences between current performance and hoped for performance” (Wiggins, 1993, p. 182). In other words, feedback provides insights that help “the learner to close the gap between current and desired performance” (Boyd et al., 2019, p. 19). According to these definitions, feedback is offered and used for the very purpose of learning - in terms of improving performance. Indeed, feedback has been considered “among the most critical influences on student learning” (Hattie &C Timperley, 2007, p. 102).
Feedback also features prominently in the LOA literature. It is a key component within the learning dimension of Turner and Purpura’s (2016) LOA framework, and is recurrently referenced in the discussion of the other seven dimensions. It also features as a core LOA element in the works by Carless (2007) and Green (2017). Apart from researchers’ emphasis on the importance of feedback in the LOA literature, the role of feedback is also manifest in one of the central questions in LOA research and practice - how learners can use assessment information to close learning gaps and improve performance (Turner Sc Purpura, 2016). Within the debate around formative vs. summative assessment, there is now a widely accepted view, originally advanced by Wiliam and Black (1996), that whether an assessment is formative or summative is not determined by the instrument used (e.g., a classroom quiz vs. a standardized test), but by the function served by the assessment information thus generated (e.g., to identify aspects of grammar in which students are weaker vs. to rank the students in a cohort). From this LOA perspective, then, feedback is one of the very elements that bridge assessment to learning - using assessment information to inform subsequent learning.
Developments in Theoretical Perspectives on Feedback
A longstanding conceptualization of feedback has been one that sees it as information offered to learners, typically by teachers, to help them improve their performance or learning outcomes (Shute, 2008). This is reflected in the definition by Wiggins (1993) cited above. Much of the theoretical insights and empirical inquiries about the effectiveness of feedback in L2 and other learning contexts have been based on such a perspective (e.g., Bitchener, 2008; Ferris, 2006; Li, 2010; Lipnevich et al. 2016), leading to advice for teachers on how to craft feedback on students’ work that is specific, forward-looking, appropriate to the learner’s level, and relates to success criteria, as will be discussed below. Notwithstanding these useful insights, such a perspective may orient educators (and learners) to a limited vision of feedback, seeing it as “one-way traffic” (Boyd et al., 2019) of teacher telling or fault-finding (Otnes & Solheim, 2019; Sadler, 2010), and afford learners limited agency as well as responsibility in engaging with feedback. This perspective has often translated into the ubiquitous practice of providing one-off comments on student work, but which could result in students’ frustration and disengagement (Price et al., 2010).
More recently, researchers, particularly those exploring feedback practices within higher education contexts, have proposed an alternative view of feedback as a dialogic process (Boud & Molloy, 2013; Carless & Boud, 2018; Steen-Utheim & Hopfenbeck, 2019; Winstone & Boud, 2020). Within this view, feedback is understood as “a process through which learners make sense of information from various sources and use it to enhance their work or learning strategies” (Carless & Boud, 2018, p. 1315).
Such a conceprualization of feedback extends its scope and informs feedback practices in two important ways. Firstly, this “feedback-as-process” view recognizes the limitations of common feedback practices associated with the “feedback-as-information” view (e.g., offering one-off feedback on the end-of-term assignment), and advocates the pedagogical practice of constructing and implementing feedback as a two-way, interactional process that takes place over time (Steen-Utheim & Hopfenbeck, 2019). This encapsulates the importance of considering the timing of feedback within the broader system or cycle of learning and assessment in order to motivate and afford opportunities for learners to act on feedback. Secondly, viewing feedback as a dialogic process puts the onus of feedback effectiveness on the learner as much as on the teacher, highlighting “the centrality of the student role in sense-making and using comments to improve subsequent work” (Carless & Boud, 2018, p. 1315). This perspective thus inspired an expanding body of empirical work investigating learner engagement with feedback, and has informed certain feedback practices such as reflective feedback conversations (Ducasse & Hill,
2019), whereby learners are to take a more proactive role in selecting aspects of their performance to receive feedback on, and having to reflect on and account for how the feedback is used in subsequent work.
It should be noted that the two theoretical perspectives on feedback are not incompatible or mutually exclusive. They have both underpinned feedback research that has identified useful practices to emulate and unhelpful ones to avoid. This chapter will discuss elements of useful feedback practices that have drawn insights from both perspectives.
Importance of Learner Engagement and Feedback Literacy
It will have become apparent from the discussion thus far that whether and how learners engage with feedback is key to its effectiveness. From seminal to recent works on feedback in the educational literature, researchers have repeatedly pointed out that whether assessment feedback is useful in promoting learning ultimately hinges on whether the learner uses - acts on - the feedback (e.g., Andrade, 2010; Black & Wiliam, 1998; Sadler, 2010; Wiliam, 2010). Learner engagement has also been identified within the contextual and affective dimensions in Turner and Purpura’s (2016) LOA framework as an element affecting learning success. However, instead of viewing it simply as a static variable linked to learning success, the feedback-as-process view encourages us to see learner engagement as something fluid or dynamic that feedback and other LOA practices can cultivate, change, or rebalance.
The importance of learner engagement in feedback processes is captured in Boud and Molloy’s (2013) learner-centered model of feedback, which includes elements of developing self-regulation, and self- and peer-assessment. Building on this learner-centered approach to feedback,
Carless and Boud (2018) argue for a need for learners ro develop feedback literacy and propose a framework containing four elements: (1) appreciating feedback, (2) making judgments, (3) managing affect, and (4) taking action. Appreciating feedback includes an attitude (or change in attitude) that recognizes the value of feedback and the learner’s active role in feedback processes, as well as the ability to understand the information or messages offered in the feedback. Making judgments concerns the capacity to evaluate the quality of work by oneself or others. Carless and Boud (2018) argue that learners are more likely to take action to change if they judge it to be necessary themselves. Conversancy in judging quality needs training and will develop over time, but, eventually, it will mean that the learners are less dependent on the teacher to inform them of their progress. The element of managing affect concerns the ability to manage emotional responses to (critical) feedback and challenges, which interacts with individual learner factors such as motivation and self-efficacy, and is mediated by the learners’ relationship with their teacher or peers. The final, and perhaps most important, element is taking action. This involves the learners assuming a proactive role in making sense of the feedback and using it to inform their future work. According to Carless and Boud (2018), this is a crucial element in the feedback processes, although also one that is often underplayed by learners. As such, the authors argue that learners need to “see themselves as agents of their own change and develop identities as pro-active learners” (p. 1319).
As can be seen, the above four elements are useful psychological orientations as well as response actions to feedback. The development of these feedback literacy elements may maximize the benefits learners can gain from feedback. Some supporting evidence can be found in the context of learning L2 writing (e.g., Berg, 1999; Min, 2006; Rahimi & Dastjerdi, 2012), where training in peer feedback led to more meaningful engagement with feedback. There is another key message to researchers, material designers, and teachers: the fact that feedback literacy is something that needs to be cultivated and developed bears implications for the design of feedback materials and activities to foster such development. The materials and proposed activities shown later represent one such effort.