Feedback – is it completely broken?

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Feedback – is it completely broken? All the discussion at the SEDA Spring Conference 2016, especially after Margaret Price’s keynote, made me feel quite depressed. Sometimes it feels like every tweek we make to current feedback practice or suggestion about how we can make it better will just not make it do what we want it to do. Is it time to delete it and start again?

Well, I think Margaret Price’s comments about not over-focusing on the feedback artifact i.e. the actual thing which does transmission of the feedback is key. Like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic tweeking the structure and wording within the feedback from staff to students is missing the bigger picture. Beyond texts which are so incomprehensible, or upset students so much that they are useless, the suggestions about how to make feedback artefacts ‘better’ are compromised first by being able to identify what ‘excellent’ written feedback is, second, the reality of staff facing 50 essays to mark being able to put this training into practice, and third, by the fact that the best written feedback in the world will only have an impact on learning if it is read and acted upon. And that, as it is increasingly becoming apparent, is dependent on a multitude of independent factors starting with whether it is accessible to students when they need it, their emotional state on receiving it, their motivations to learn etc etc. So my thoughts turned to how to engage people with text.

In my previous life working in developing the content for museum exhibitions there was a whole sub-set of consultants who specialised in writing texts for exhibition signage. They just focused on how texts engaged and communicated with audiences. It was a full time job for them. The way it works is that curators or people like me sent through text which we all thought was pretty good – we’re intelligent people with higher degrees and we all like to think we write well. A few days later, the text would come back – reorganised, restructured, reworded, but the meaning 100 times clearer, and synthetic with all of the other language in the exhibition, from marketing materials, to the audio on an AV installation, to signage in a completely different area of the exhibition, to the evaluation questionnaires. It costs a lot of money, but this would be key to engaging, say half of the exhibition visitors, which is roughly how many would read that piece of text – say 35,000 people. Through reading about half the materials, and engaging with some of the rest of the display (objects, images, multimedia installations, exhibition layout and atmosphere), we would hope that visitors would leave with the key 3 or 4 messages of the exhibition. My point here is that communicating important messages through a 200 word piece of text is really hard, that this is something professional writers are best at, and that communication relies on context – which when you’re writing for an exhibition you can have some attempt at controlling.

The fact is that we don’t know what the words are that will pull in the student to read and engage with our feedback. We might know what will definitely not work, but we have almost no idea what definitely will. The fact is that there may be no words at all that will be able to do that. Our only hope is controlling the learning environment, our ‘context’, to make this more likely to happen. And while this is currently as broken as the feedback artefact, the good news is that this probably is reparable.

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