Society today faces notable changes. These changes are actually not so much related to the technological advances but more to developments within the social contexts. The working life environment today is composed of multidisciplinary networks where people need skills to share their expertise and to learn from others as well as skills to communicate with professionals from different disciplines. Since the change in society is rapid and the learning process should be agile, learners concurrently require feedback on their progress in order to learn and to keep up with the society. In the higher education context it means that both teachers, students, as well as the entire academic community, are learners sharing a joint learning process. This learning process is a reciprocal dialogue where feedback gets a new meaning deviating from the traditional one. Feedback is interaction between learners, a joint developmental dialogue with deep approach to learning as a goal. Furthermore, feedback is a prerequisite of learning. This sets higher education institutions in an interesting environment of change where the question arises: How will they respond to that change and the new needs set by the working life?
Contemporary theories of learning share the perception of a sociocultural approach to learning where learning takes place in interaction with others (Illeris, 2009). According to Lonka (2014), understanding of the mind and its function, learning in interaction with others, development of expertise, feelings, motivation and creativity are essential in the learning process and all of which are strongly connected to continuous, constructive feedback.
The word “feedback” is widely used in the higher education discourse today. At the same time, while the importance of feedback is highlighted, its actual meaning has become vague. It has become a buzzword in pedagogical as well as in organisational literature, and many times the meaning is loose and poorly defined (Scott, 2014; Cole, 2015). In the context of higher education, the word “feedback” is typically connected to assessment feedback which students obtain from their teachers on their learning activities and assignments, or to course feedback (or student feedback, satisfaction surveys) that teachers and institutions receive from students at the end of a course or after completing a degree. Both these perspectives have their challenges in connection to the learning process (e.g. Smithson, Birks, Harrison, Sid Nair & Hitchins, 2015; Alderman, Towers & Bannah, 2012; Orsmond, Maw, Park, Gomez & Crook, 2013; Nicol, 2010; Crisp, 2007). In both of these views, feedback is connected to either student-centred approach or teacher-centred approach regarding teaching and learning. Recent discussion has been moving towards a more learning-centred approach on feedback (e.g. Scott, 2014). However, only scarce research on more holistic views on feedback and feedback culture in the higher education context has been conducted and published.
When feedback is connected to enhancing the learning process, the roles of teachers and students change. All parties are members of the learning community and take part in the same learning process. Simultaneously, when the approach to learning and teaching is changing, the meaning of the word “feedback” changes from a one-way process of giving and receiving to a collaborative dialogue and development of the learning process. This dialogical approach to learning and feedback is strongly connected to the present understanding of future working life skills.
According to Cathcart, Greer and Neale (2014) in modern learning environments, the meaning of feedback should include three elements: concurrent, feedforward and feedback loops. Feedback refers to an evaluation of past activities. Concurrent evaluation cycles refer to activities that are carried out during the learning process and feedforward activities are acts that guide future learning.
The ever changing learning environments require changes towards the idea of continuous evaluation and feedback, which then means dialogue. The traditional meaning of the word “feedback” emphasises evaluation of past activities and should change. The approach that is aligned with the present view of learning and the development of expertise in higher education needs a more concurrent and feedforward meaning to its feedback discourse.
The focus is, therefore, strongly on feedback culture which is connected to the contemporary understanding of learning in the future society. Therefore, it is of utmost importance in higher education institutions to define the aims of feedback and the type of feedback culture these institutions want to support.
Feedback, as well as evaluation in general, has two functions one being quality assurance and the other quality enhancement (Edström, 2008). This may cause contradictions. The unclear meaning of feedback may cause ambivalence and hinder the developmental role of feedback as well as prevent the creation of a positive feedback culture.
Methodological orientation and procedures
Metropolia University of Applied Sciences (www.metropolia.fi) is a multidisciplinary university of applied sciences operating in the Helsinki Metropolitan area. Metropolia is the largest UAS in Finland and educates students in the fields of technology, health care and social services, arts and culture and business.
In 2014, a curriculum reform was conducted in Metropolia aiming at enhancing a student-centred learning culture and collaborative teaching and learning practices. The key concepts of the new curricula were working life orientation, an inquiry-based approach to teaching and learning, lifelong learning, multidisciplinarity, and internationality. The learning outcomes of the new curricula were defined in close collaboration with the working life. Implementation of project-based learning facilitated practicing working life skills, such as interaction, problem-solving and cooperation with people from various fields in a safe atmosphere during the studies.
Collecting feedback from the students as part of educational quality assurance has been common practice in Metropolia for a long time. The teaching and learning feedback system has consisted of various surveys for students (course feedback survey, second-year student survey, survey for graduating students), which are typical of any higher education institutions of today. A low response activity, an unsuitable timing in relation to the learning process and an unsystematic use of the data collected for educational development have been current challenges.
To support the pedagogical vision of the new curricula, a strategic project on enhancing the feedback system in teaching and learning was initiated. We use the term feedback system to cover the complete entity of feedback in learning and teaching including students, teaching staff, degree programmes, and educational leaders. The project aim was to create a new feedback system where all parties would continuously acquire information on learning and teaching, skills and abilities, professional growth and development during the learning process. The goal was for the feedback to be constructive, meaningful and transparent to all parties and systematically leading to educational development. The ambition was to advance a formation of a dialogic feedback culture and to support students in learning dialogic feedback skills that would better meet the needs of the future working life and learning needed in the future society.
The authors discovered, almost immediately at the kick-off of the project, that the meaning of the word “feedback” was not identical to everyone and, thus, the meaning of the word was ambiguous. Depending on perspective, there was a variation in what was actually meant by the word. Views representing the student perspective more as well as those depicting more of the teacher perspective on the same phenomenon were present. It became clear that the question was about different approaches to feedback and its relation to the learning process. Therefore, it was important to determine both student approaches and the teaching staff member approaches to feedback and, more importantly, what was their conception of the word. To be able to proceed towards the aim of a dialogic feedback culture, it was essential to understand the orientation of the Metropolia community members towards feedback.
The project group for enhancing the feedback system in Metropolia included five members of the Metropolia’s strategic teaching and learning development team (Oiva team). This team was composed of teachers and educational experts from different fields and departments of Metropolia. The feedback development group was supervised by the entire Oiva team whose function in this context was to reflect and enrich the feedback development work. The group started their work on this topic by defining the goals of the new feedback system and by answering the question why a feedback system is needed. Because it was obvious from the beginning that the meaning of the concept “feedback” was not at all apparent and unambiguous, workshops were designed to involve the members of the Metropolia community to discuss this issue. Altogether 400 students and staff members participated in these workshops. This paper discusses the suggestions and ideas of the participant staff members.
In the workshops, the participants worked in groups giving their points of view on the following four questions:
- For what purposes is a feedback system needed?
- What kind of a feedback culture would you like to support?
- From the viewpoint of your discipline, what aspects should be taken into account when developing the new feedback system?
- What are your best feedback practices?
In the groups, the participants produced textual and visual interpretations to reflect on the above listed four questions. In order to study the staff member thoughts regarding the meaning of the word “feedback” and their conception of feedback culture, the materials produced in the workshops were collected and studied using data-driven content analysis.
After the authors had read the data several times, they were able to form themes and the data could then be divided into three thematic categories: teacher-centred, student-centred and learning-centred views on feedback.
Most of the textual interpretations described student-centred views on feedback where hearing the student voices during the learning process was considered to be important. Discussions during the course and at the end of the semesters were mentioned as being effective. The course feedback collected after the course was, in many cases, seen useless from the student learning viewpoint. In addition, several activating methods on how to give feedback to students on their assignments were described. These methods included, for example, learning diaries, portfolios and development discussions.
Only a few textual interpretations existed with the views on feedback as purely teacher-centred. These interpretations included comments which were related only to a teacher’s point of view. These comments were related to how course feedback given after the course should be handled and processed further by the teaching staff and faculty members, e.g., whether it should be visible for the superiors and should it be taken into account in evaluating teaching competence. These comments were mainly connected to problems or challenges in collecting course feedback or in the technical implementation of data systems. Many of the interpretations combined student-centred and teacher-centred views.
Some of the answers represented a learning-centred view on feedback where the traditional meaning of giving and receiving feedback was expanded towards interaction and a dialogic feedback culture. In these interpretations no separate teacher and student roles were present. Instead descriptions of co-creation and a joint learning process were presented. Typical features of the feedback culture described were apparent connections between feedback and enhancement activities, collaborative and learning-centred approaches to learning, continuous dialogue and interaction between students and teachers, as well as an open and safe learning atmosphere. The connection between feedback and a competence-based view of teaching and learning was clearly visible.
The constantly changing working life environment requires learning environments that include open interaction and dialogue between all parties. Thus, the feedback culture in higher education institutions needs to change towards a more dialogic direction. The traditional one-way meaning of giving and receiving feedback will give way to a more holistic view of dialogic feedback culture. Simultaneously, the feedback orientation of both students and staff members, which here means the learners’ attitude and willingness to reflect on their work becomes essential.
The focus of feedback should shift from the evaluation of teaching towards the evaluation of learning. Student roles as co-creators should increase. Feedback understood solely as an evaluation of past activities does not match with the learning required in the future learning environments and working life. A strong dialogic feedback culture together with the developmental role of feedback is, surely, a part of future working life skills. Learning these skills should be integrated into the higher education curricula as part of the development of expertise.
Jenni Koponen, M.Sc (Tech), MA (Educ), Principal Lecturer, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences, jenni.koponen(at)metropolia.fi
Tiina Kokko, MA (Musicology), Specialist, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Anne Perkiö, M.Sc (Econ), Lic.Ed., Principal Lecturer, Head of Degree Programme in Business Administration, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Carina Savander-Ranne, Dr. Tech., Senior Lecturer, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Tero Toivanen, BBA student in marketing, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
Markus Utrio, MMus, Senior lecturer, Metropolia University of Applied Sciences
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