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Learning to ask for feedback

Renske de Kleijn

In education, increasing attention is being paid to an active role of students in feedback processes. It’s uncontested that feedback can only lead to learning if it is actually accepted, processed, and used. In this view, the student changes from a passive recipient to an active user.

One way to encourage this change is to let students ask for specific feedback themselves. The assumption of students asking for feedback is often that this feedback is more readily accepted and thus better processed and used. However, for me there’s another reason that it makes sense to teach students to ask good feedback questions: by asking a feedback question a student can provide some additional insight into where they themselves think they are and what they think they need. This is relevant information for a teacher (or peer) to properly tailor feedback to that specific student. So, I think that asking a good feedback question is going to lead to getting more adapted and therefore useful feedback. Let me explain this with a theoretical principle from developmental psychologist Vygotsky: the zone of proximal development.

 

ZONE OF PROXIMAL DEVELOPMENT

In feedback literature Vygotsky’s work is often used to emphasize that learning is a social process that takes place in interaction with others and then preferably in the so-called zone of proximal development. He himself defined this as “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, 1978; p.86) To make it a bit more concrete, often a figure with three circles is used (see Figure). In this figure, the center circle represents what a student can do independently and without assistance. The circle around it represents the zone of proximal development and thus what a student could do with help from a (more capable) classmate or a teacher. The outer circle is sometimes referred to as the panic zone. It represents everything that is still very much out of reach for a student and impossible to do, even with help.

With feedback processes you obviously hope to work precisely in that zone of proximal development: it should not be about what someone can already do independently, but also not about what is unachievable beforehand. That may sound relatively simple, but it is certainly no easy task to gain insight into exactly where a student’s zone of proximal development is. In literature on scaffolding, which also builds on the idea of ZPD, much emphasis is therefore placed on the importance of teachers’ diagnostic strategies2. The idea is that teachers can provide adaptive and effective help only when they have a clear picture of what a student can de independently, and what they need help with.

I find it striking that the ZPD is mainly used to describe what teachers should do to be able to help students well, but that until now hardly any attention has been paid to what students themselves can already do to visualize their zone of actual development. Especially given the increasing focus on students’ active role in feedback processes. Therefore, my proposal is that from now on, when asking for feedback, we let students proactively share where they themselves think they are and can get to with some help. So, as to better enable the feedback giver to provide adaptive feedback in a student’s zone of proximal development.

Figure. The Zone of Proximal Development
Figure. The Zone of Proximal Development

 

 

RESEARCH ON FEEDBACK-SEEKING BEHAVIOR

So now let’s take look at what we already know from research about how people seek feedback. The literature roughly distinguishes two ways in which people seek feedback: monitoring and inquiry.

With monitoring, someone derives feedback from the environment or context. For example, because a student receives no feedback on a specific part of their assignment, the student interprets this as the implicit feedback that nothing needs to be improved.

With inquiry, someone explicitly asks for feedback on how something went or what the main areas for improvement are. Research into feedback-seeking behavior has so far predominantly taken place in the context of the workplace, but slowly more and more attention is being paid to it in higher education3-6.

In 2010, British researchers Bloxham and Campbell had students write a cover sheet when handing in their draft writing assignments, on which they had to indicate the specific aspects on which they would like feedback7. Teachers were positive about this approach, but students reported that they found it difficult to ask specific questions and some students reported feeling embarrassed.

In the Netherlands, researcher Bas Agricola and colleagues recently had students in a Nutrition and Dietetics program use forms to ask feedback questions8. But they found no effect of this on whether the students liked the feedback more, how much they said they used the feedback or how much they thought they learned from the feedback. The researchers themselves suggested as an explanation for this that students did not really ask high-quality questions. The findings of these two studies show that while teachers and researchers do see benefit in motivating students to ask feedback questions, students seem find it quite difficult.

Yet nowhere in either the educational literature nor the workplace learning literature have I found guidance on what then constitutes a good feedback question and how we might help students to do so. Therefore, I decided to make a first attempt, based on my experiences as a student, PhD student, supervisor, trainer, and advisor, to develop concrete guidelines for feedback questions that are also informed by what is known from research on feedback9.

4 TYPES OF FEEDBACK QUESTIONS

I have arrived at four types of feedback questions that students often ask that I would summarize as follows:

“I’m getting stuck, what should I do?”

“Is this good (enough)?”

“Tell me everything I need to improve?”

“Is it good (enough) now?”

For each of these questions, I would like to offer an alternative, consistent with the principle of sharing information about the zone of actual development to enable the feedback giver to provide adaptive feedback.

Feedback question “I’m getting stuck, what should I do?”

By asking this question, a student in fact places the responsibility for solving their problem entirely on the other person. Instead, we would reverse that: first show how far you have come yourself, without help, and then ask for feedback.

It is therefore recommended to have students first tell you: what is the problem you are facing? What optional solutions have you already thought of and maybe even tried yourself? What are the pros and cons of those different options? And what would you do if you didn’t get any feedback or help? That way the feedback giver gets more insight into where a student stands and can provide feedback on: is the student seeing the problem correctly? Are there other possible options other than those the student has already thought off? Are there other advantages or disadvantages of these options that the student has not yet identified? Or would the teacher weigh the pros and cons differently and therefore recommend a different solution?

To make this practical through an acronym, I hope that the acronym POWER can help students ask this type of feedback question:

Problem Description: what is the problem I am facing?

Options or Solutions: what solutions do I see for myself (and have I tried)?

Weighing options: what advantages and disadvantages do I think those solutions have?

Express preference: what would I choose without help?

Request advice: can you give me feedback on this?

Even when it is (still) too much for students to formulate a POWER question on their own, we as teachers can help them by taking students through these questions step by step.

Feedback question “Is this good (enough)?”

Again, this question will seem familiar to some teachers, and in fact, the student asking this is probably hoping for the simple answer, “yes.” But in practice, this is rarely the case.

Again, I think we could help students by formulating another variant of this question that would give the feedback giver more information about the zone of actual development. First, it is good to indicate the context of the feedback question: does the student see their work as nearly finished or more like a first rough draft. For me, that matters quite a bit for how I give feedback.

Second, I would like to know from students on what learning objective they want to know if it is good enough. In doing so, you give some of the responsibility back on the student to prioritize exactly what they would want feedback on and why. Finally, it gives a lot of insight to know how good a student themselves thinks their own work is, so it helps when a student provides a self-assessment. For this type of feedback question, I suggest that the acronym CLOSER can be used to help students ask an information-rich question:

Context: how much time and energy have I put into this work? Is this my best version?

Learning Objective: on which part do I want feedback?

Self-Evaluation: what do I like and dislike about that part?

Request advice: can you give me feedback on this?

 

Feedback question “Tell me everything I need to improve”

At this point in my story, I often get the response from teachers, “Yes but what about the feedback I want to give on the elements, of which students themselves do not see (yet) that improvement is needed?” And that is a very valid question! If we were to give students question-driven feedback only, we would throw the baby out with the bathwater. But then it’s important that we change the question ” Tell me everything I need to improve?” to “What’s the most important thing I need to improve? So, I think we should explain to students much more clearly and more often that it is not our responsibility as teachers to direct them to every possibility for improvement. In fact, I think that in no time we will be in the outer circle of the figure above, in the panic zone. We can then also indicate that it is up to us as teachers to help students in an adaptive way and to give them the most important points for improvement for their work10.

I am reminded of the interviews I transcribed years ago as a student assistant for researcher Hendrien Duijnhouwer who was working on her PhD on written feedback. While transcribing, I noticed that many students said something along the lines of: “if I had known I would get such serious feedback, I would have submitted a better version.” To me, that’s where that piece of shared responsibility comes in: the better the version a student submits for feedback, the better the feedback will align with their zone of proximal development. I did not create an acronym for this type of feedback question but came across the apt term BLIND-SPOT-FEEDBACK via a form by Patrick Schriel. Later I realized that this is also part of the Johari window (see for instance: https://www.communicationtheory.org/the-johari-window-model/). In fact, I think we would want students in these situations to ask:

“This work shows how far I have been able to come myself,

I don’t think it’s quite finished/complete yet

and I am willing to work on it further.

In your opinion, what are my main blind spots right now?”

Feedback question: “Is it good (enough) now?”

The fourth feedback question is a follow-up question. Feedback has been received and incorporated at an earlier stage and the student now wants to know if the work has improved as a result. In doing so, the student often assumes that the teacher remembers exactly what the earlier work looked like and what feedback was given on that version. But this is not always the case.

Moreover, we know from research, by David Carless11 and others, that a feedback message is by no means always perceived the way it was intended. Therefore, when asking for follow-up feedback, it may be helpful if students first provide a brief summary of the feedback they received earlier. It can also help the feedback giver to know how and with what considerations the feedback was used and where exactly that is reflected in a student’s work. In written work, for example, students can mark modified parts of a document in a different color.

In addition, much research shows that receiving feedback is not just a cognitive process, but often also evokes an emotional response. Such an emotion can be positive or negative, as well as activating or deactivating12. It can be informative for a feedback giver to also hear back from the student how they felt about the feedback. Did they experience it as positive or negative and as activating or deactivating? It gives insight into how a student reacts to feedback and allows the feedback giver to take that into account (a little more) the next time when giving feedback. An acronym can also be used for this last feedback question: SUPER.

Summary: What feedback have I received before?

Use: How did I use that feedback?

Product/Performance: How is it reflected in my improved product or performance?

Emotions: What emotions did it evoke and how did I address that?

Council Questions: Did this indeed improve my work

Conclusion

As mentioned, these four types of feedback questions are intended as a first step to make more concrete how students can ask effective feedback questions. But surely this overview is not yet complete. I hope, in part with feedback from readers of this blog, to expand and add to it where possible. Many of my own students to whom I show these feedback questions respond with: “If only I had known this earlier, it would have been even more helpful.” This reinforces my belief that we should be talking about this with students early in higher education courses. On the other hand, of course, there are students who tell me that they have implicitly been doing all this for a long time and haven’t heard much new. I then tell them that they are already doing very well and that they might help other students with this too, because it is not so obvious or intuitive to every student. I would also like to share another reaction I received recently. A business manager came up to me after an invited keynote and said that there are some students and employees who just ask questions too easily. They ask the usual questions or ask questions that someone could easily look up for themselves. So, I was suggested to also introduce the abbreviation LMGTFY: let me google that for you!

REFERENCES

1 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). The collected works of LS Vygotsky: The fundamentals of defectology (Vol. 2). Springer Science & Business Media, p.86.

2 Van de Pol, J., Volman, M., & Beishuizen, J. (2010). Scaffolding in teacher-student interaction: A decade of research. Educational psychology review, 22(3), 271-296.

3 Anseel, F., Beatty, A. S., Shen, W., Lievens, F., & Sackett, P. R. (2015). How are we doing after 30 years? A meta-analytic review of the antecedents and outcomes of feedback-seeking behavior. Journal of management, 41(1), 318-348.

4 Ashford, S. J., Blatt, R., & VandeWalle, D. (2003). Reflections on the looking glass: A review of research on feedback-seeking behavior in organizations. Journal of management, 29(6), 773-799.

5 Joughin, G., Boud, D., Dawson, P., & Tai, J. (2021). What can higher education learn from feedback seeking behavior in organizations? Implications for feedback literacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(1), 80-91.

6 Leenknecht, M., Hompus, P., & van der Schaaf, M. (2019). Feedback seeking behavior in higher education: the association with students’ goal orientation and deep learning approach. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(7), 1069-1078.

7 Bloxham, S., & Campbell, L. (2010). Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: Exploring the use of interactive cover sheets. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), 291-300.

8 Agricola, B. T., Prins, F. J., & Sluijsmans, D. M. (2020). Impact of feedback request forms and verbal feedback on higher education students’ feedback perception, self-efficacy, and motivation. Assessment in education: principles, policy & practice, 27(1), 6-25.

9 Kleijn, R.A.M. de (2021). Supporting student and teacher feedback literacy: an instructional model for student feedback processes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1-15.

10 Tielemans, C., de Kleijn, R., van der Schaaf, M., van den Broek, S., & Westerveld, T. (2021). The Westerveld framework for interprofessional feedback dialogues in health professions education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1-17.

11 Carless, D. (2006). Differing perceptions in the feedback process. Studies in higher education, 31(2), 219-233.

12 Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W., & Perry, R. P. (2002). Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational psychologist, 37(2), 91-105.

 

Auteur

  • Renske de Kleijn

    Renske de Kleijn works as an educational researcher at the Education Centre of UMC Utrecht, where she conducts and supervises research on feedback processes in education and the workplace. She received her PhD in 2013 with a thesis on feedback in thesis supervision and worked for eight years as an educational consultant and trainer at Utrecht University.

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Auteur

  • Renske de Kleijn

    Renske de Kleijn works as an educational researcher at the Education Centre of UMC Utrecht, where she conducts and supervises research on feedback processes in education and the workplace. She received her PhD in 2013 with a thesis on feedback in thesis supervision and worked for eight years as an educational consultant and trainer at Utrecht University.

    View all posts

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