“I have never received such detailed feedback on my assignment”. This from a post graduate student in management who had studied in the best of schools and universities. I had given feedback as I was taught, as I would to any student whether at the post graduate level, or even at the A level. This student, after fifteen years of schooling had encountered feedback for the first time. As had the rest of the class. I have never forgotten that moment, as I handed back the assignment sheets to the MBA class I was teaching that year. I have also not forgotten my secret fear at that moment – that they would not know what to do with the feedback.
The purpose of examinations, and assessments is to implement feedback so that one sets up a constructive learning cycle for the students. There is no point having exams and then ending up with a number that makes one emotional – either jump with joy or sink into sorrow. The purpose of assessments is not an emotional response, the purpose of assessments is to figure out the right way forward based on what has been discovered. Imagine you are on a hike, an exploration through a jungle or up a hill. The landscape is unknown but you have some guides(teachers), a map (textbooks), and your own effort. You stop after a while to take stock. That is an assessment of your situation. You look at the map, your compass and you assess where you are. You look at the time and the direction of the sun, and you verify whether you are on track. You look at markers along the route, or messages left by previous explorers and you know how to proceed. If you find a well trodden route, maintained along the edges, you know you are safe. If you find yourself in a hollow surrounded by skeletons, you know you need to get out of there, need help, and quick! That is what assessment does – it gives you feedback on how you are doing and what you need to do next. (If this sounds like CCE, Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation – well, that’s why it is a good system)
Sadly, feedback has been mangled over the years by many. Here I will call out almost every teacher I have met, and ask them – hand on heart – have you been kind and constructive in your feedback to students? Have you been fair and helpful to all your students? Have you treated them all with the respect that is owed to human beings with infinite potential? Most importantly, have you been useful? Or is all of this reserved for teacher conferences where we all nod to what is ideal and then go back to our impatient and rushed teacher lives. There is no excuse for a teacher to simply mark an answer sheet with a red pen that gives marks but no explanation of how the gap can be filled. And yes, every student is unique, so every student must be told what they need to do to improve. For every answer in every answer sheet and examination. If a teacher has not given written feedback then they have not marked the paper. The red marks are mere emotion triggers, not education triggers. We did not sign up for emo-practice, we came to school to learn how to do better.
The consequences of poor or no feedback are very serious. First, without feedback there is really no point to the whole rote learning and exam cycle if the exam is not going to yield any useful information. Second, without feedback a student only learns to try once – in the examination – and stop right there. With feedback they can actually pick themselves up and move towards the goal as advised. No feedback means no advice, and that means the student is clueless about what to do next. Third, with mere marks and no feedback, an exam is a sense of judgement. This impacts the student’s sense of self worth and the kind of social feedback they receive after they share they ‘results’. The results become their destiny, their position, their nickname. Imagine being called a duffer just because a teacher was too lazy or ill-trained to know that they were supposed to tell you how to get out of your unfortunate position. And being berated for doing badly, finding oneself stuck – and having no idea how to change it, because the grown ups in charge could not be bothered to give feedback. This is how student stress is fostered. Have you ever tried to get a young teen child to go up to a teacher and seek feedback? If the child is able to gather up the courage to approach the teacher (and an unapproachable teacher is a pathetic thing already), then it is near impossible to get them to give a constructive response that can be used. At best they will respond with “I told you this in class”, or “It is all in your book” or some such response – completely blind to the fact that the assessment marks prove that those things did not work – and that is precisely what the specific feedback is supposed to address. I can hear teachers saying – “We do not have time to give individual feedback to each child”. I am sorry, sirs and ma’ams, that is your job. Good teachers all over the world do it, and this is why they have quality education. Without the feedback loop, the learning cycle is not complete. And your job is not done.
Finally of course, one of the worst consequences of not being in the habit of receiving feedback shows up in one’s working life. When one first encounters feedback, all one has been trained in is an emo-response to results. And that is what happens. Either one’s ego, or one’s insecurities, and often both get triggered. This is certainly not professional, nor does one become employable if one is so touchy. Not just in the workplace, the ability to deal with feedback affects national discourse too. As I write this, Raghuram Rajan, the Reserve Bank of India governor is being accused of not being supportive of India all because he gave feedback as any good advisor would. It is the job of a professional with integrity to speak their mind to (perceived) power and they must be respected for it – though an insecure response is more likely from those who were weakened by teachers who only gave them ‘results’ and not progression pathways via feedback. It is time to think through whether teachers are really doing their best by their students to create strong, employable candidates for the world ahead.
P.S. And about the secret worry that my students would not know what to do with the feedback? What I’d expect them to do after reading it is to reflect, reframe and if possible re-do. Fill the gaps in the structure and content that had been identified in the feedback and try it out at least once. As a teacher, I’d be pleased and proud of the turnaround and would happily look at it again for the next time. I’m pleased to say they did.