FEEDBACK AS A LEARNING SUPPORT TOOL IN ODL

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CHAPTER 3 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: FEEDBACK AS A LEARNING SUPPORT TOOL IN ODL

INTRODUCTION

This chapter forms part of the literature review for the study. It extends from the contextual and theoretical framework provided in Chapter Two and aims to survey literature on feedback in order to reveal the key concepts and ideas which form the basis for this study.
According to Miles and Huberman (1994:18), a conceptual framework is a visual or written product, one that “explains, either graphically or in narrative form, the main things to be studied, the key factors, concepts, or variables and the presumed relationships among them”.
To remind the reader, as mentioned in Chapter 1 (section 1.4), the primary aim of the study is to develop and propose an assessment model for optimising feedback in ODL. To this end, data obtained from this study would be used to propose an assessment model for optimising feedback in ODL. Thus, the purpose of this literature survey is aimed at gaining deeper insights and understanding pertaining to the concept of feedback.
Feedback is the cornerstone of learning and a key aspect in helping students to understand their progress and to becoming more effective independent learners (Orrell, 2006). However, there is much to be understood and unearthed pertaining to the concept of feedback, before it can be used in such a manner to stimulate learning. Hence, this chapter provides a shared understanding of assessment feedback through a review process of the relevant literature.
While there is much reference made around the significance of the concept of feedback, it is important to interrogate carefully what is meant by feedback and issues pertaining to conceptual assumptions, assessment models, feedback in educational practice and types of feedback. The last section of this chapter deals with the strategies which may help to improve assessment feedback.

FEEDBACK: ASPECTS AND CHALLENGES

In this section, focus is placed on the feedback process, aspects and challenges. Developing a shared understanding of the feedback process for student and tutor is not without difficulty given that each have different positions, roles, and aims and the scope for narrowing variation in assumptions may be limited (Carless, 2006).
To this end, Beaumont, O’Doherty and Shannon (2011) note the inconsistency of feedback practice among lecturers, and Careless, Salter, Yang, and Lam (2011:406) comment that “only a minority of lecturers are likely to have the mind-set, skills and motivation to prioritize the development of self-regulative activities congruent with sustainable feedback”.
From the student perspective, encouraging students to be “conscientious consumers” (Higgins, et al. 2002), who value the feedback process and demonstrate an ability to critique their own work is not straightforward, and it may be difficult to engage passive students in self-managing (Rae & Cochrane, 2008).
Having considered the effort and time spent on constructing feedback, the study done by Price, et al. (2010) is titled “Feedback: all that effort, but what is its effect?” The findings of this study describe the perspectives of students and staff on the effectiveness of feedback and examine particular factors that participants identified as pertinent to effectiveness. This study is very much related to my study, in the sense that it also aims to bring the perspectives and experiences of both tutors and students into focus with regards to feedback practices. It is therefore important to share some findings as cited by Price, et al. (2010:282) on the student and staffs’ views on feedback.
Students regard feedback as very important for their studies. However, as mentioned in prior studies, they encounter problems such as illegible handwritings, negative tone of feedback, and vague or unclear feedback. Staff recognise the role of feedback in learning and concur that it contributes to students’ learning outcomes. However, they are discontented with the lack of student engagement with the feedback. Some are simply not sure whether students follow the feedback given.
It is evident that the condition set above by the staff is that the feedback might contribute to student learning, provided students engage with feedback.
Another study, which is a doctoral thesis, conducted by Mbukusa (2009) at CES echoes similar findings with regards to the provision of feedback. The following exert is from Mbukusa (2009:269), when he interviewed a distance student who studied at CES.
Interviewer: Do you get feedback from your tutors?
Respondent: Yes, in some cases but not always.
Interviewer: Do you understand the feedback from your tutors? Does feedback help? Respondent: Feedback comes so late, sometimes after the exams have already been written. I always use my posting box. If you are lucky that you have the feedback, you might find yourself stranded as well. It is difficult to read the comments in the margin of the assignment. Some tutors seem to have difficulties with writing. They do not know how to write words that help students. What do you do with words like ‘good’, ‘not clear’ or ‘what is this?’ These words do not help. As students we learn nothing from such interaction with our tutors. They forget that they are not with us. They are far away from us.
Considering assertions made by students and staff above, the element of blame-shifting between students and tutors comes to the fore. Thus, feedback practice is intriguing and perplexing, as it is sometimes extremely difficult to get to the bottom of the underlying challenges and issues. As is evident from the above assertions, students and staff concur on the need and importance of feedback in the learning-teaching process. However, interestingly, both students and staff have different complaints about feedback.
The above challenges raised by the students render the following statement authentic: “Although students can, with difficulty, escape from the effects of poor teaching, they cannot escape the effects of poor assessment” (Boud, 1995:35). Poor assessment is tantamount to poor feedback practice.
Chetwynd and Dobbyn (2011) conducted a study to develop a taxonomy of feedback and report on the results of a survey of tutors’ attitudes to, and strategies for, providing feedback on a very large level one module, at the Open University in the United Kingdom. The authors cite some aspects or views from the tutors regarding tutor-marked assignments as mentioned below:
Assignments are infrequent and count substantially to the final exams. In fact the tutor-marked assignments become “high stake assessments”.
There is a lack of monitoring mechanisms on how effective the feedback given to the students is.
There is a concern regarding the monitoring of the impact of feedback. Who gauges whether a student has understood, interpreted, acted on or even read the feedback supplied?
The students hardly contact tutors for clarification because of among others, pressure to carry on with the next assignment. Retrospective feedback given after marks have been allocated will not be helpful to students as the students will not use it to improve learning.
The above-mentioned issues should not only be viewed as concerns but are issues, which if properly addressed, could result in improved learning outcomes. Krause, Hartley, James and McInnis, (2005) conducted a review of assessment studies in Australian universities and reported on-going student discontent over assessment feedback for at least a decade. In support of this view, many studies indicate that students find feedback difficult to understand and that staff often find it difficult to explain what they mean (Chanock, 2000; Higgins, Hartley & Skelton, 2001; MacLellan, 2001). MacDonald, Burke and Stewart (2006) also reveal that there is a gap in the understanding of feedback and differing expectations of feedback between academics and students.
Adcroft (2011) suggests the possible reasons for these differences in expectations to be the behaviour of the students, the behaviour of the academics and the environment in which they interact.
Poor feedback practice has been identified as another challenge. According to Vardi (2009), an example of poor feedback practice is when it is too brief, not specific enough, involves arbitrary judgements about standards and uses terms that may be vague, cryptic, sarcastic and lacking in praise. Similarly, Burke (2009:42) proposes that poor practice is the primary cause of poor outcomes and that is when feedback is too “brief, too difficult to decipher or to understand”.
Another challenge raised by Burke and Pieterick (2010) is the fact that feedback provision is time-consuming and that there is disparate knowledge on the practice and effectiveness of written feedback. Ansari (2002) cites that a large number of students in DE, pose insurmountable difficulties in providing feedback to students through tutor comments on assignments. Yet, many ODL providers make assignments compulsory in selected programmes, in order to ensure necessary assessment feedback is provided to students.
Higher education institutions in the United Kingdom (UK) are generally under pressure to provide timely feedback to students (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004a; Lunt & Curran, 2009). Increasing student numbers, a shift towards modularisation and semesterisation, and decreasing staff to student ratios, have been identified as reasons why the quality of feedback is under threat (Higgins, et al. 2002; Gibbs & Simpson, 2004a; Hounsell, et al. 2008).
The result of the 2008 National Student Survey (NSS) done in the UK highlights that feedback on assessments is a key concern for the students. The National Student Survey (NSS) is an initiative of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) that is designed at providing students with a chance to make their views on their higher education experience count.at a national level.
From the survey mentioned above, it is deducible that irrespective of institution, background or course, students are considerably less satisfied about the feedback that they receive than their overall learning experience. This follows related levels of discontentment that have arisen in the above-mentioned survey since.it started in 2005, indicating that the issue is mutually pervasive and continuous.
Nicol (2010 b) states that student surveys through the world highlight that students are unhappy with the feedback they get on their assignments and many institutions have been putting plans in place.to address this issue. He further reasons that the many varied expressions of dissatisfaction with written feedback, both from students and tutors, are all symptoms of impoverished dialogue.
Further on student surveys, Crook, Mauchline, Maw, Lawson, Drinkwater, Lundqvist, Orsmond, Gomez and Park (2012) conclude that the National Student Survey Questionnaire data from staff and students.at the University of Reading, confirm the core issues came across with feedback, namely problems of time efficiency for staff, lack of engagement.by students with feedback and matters with the timeliness and quality of feedback received.
According to Glover and Brown (2006) at both Sheffield Hallam University and the Open University in the UK, the absence of shared understanding of assessment criteria and feedback among students and the assignment author(s) was found to be mainly pertinent when the discursive content of an assignment was high or when the central tasks involved information selection. In these cases the feedback was strongly omissions-focused. The lack of errors-feedback recommends that the assessment was a pitiable measure of students’ knowledge and understanding.
A concern raised by Nicol (2010 a), is that mass higher education limits dialogue. As a result the written feedback, which is essentially a one‐way communication, often has to carry almost all the burden of tutor-student interaction. His study suggests ways in which the nature and quality of feedback dialogue can be enhanced when student numbers are large without necessarily increasing demands on academic staff. It concludes with a conceptual discussion of the merits of taking a dialogical approach when designing feedback.
Evidently, feedback practice cannot be improved or considered in isolation. As Sadler (1989) mentions, without providing strategies for improving learning and without searching for and monitoring how performance information subsequently influences the learner, feedback may simply be viewed as “dangling data”. This simply dictates that prerequisites or priorities should be in place before one might think of feedback practice. For example, as Boud and Molloy (2013) remark, it is necessary to reposition feedback as a fundamental part of curriculum design, assessment practice, teaching and learning.
It is my conviction that there is a mismatch of concerns between tutors and learners with regards to feedback practices. For example, some students do not react on the feedback that they are given, probably because they do not understand (language used) or may be too inexperienced to make sense of the feedback. The tutors could also be inexperienced in providing effective and quality feedback and may have an inappropriate understanding of the nature of learning. Who is at fault or where does the problem lie?
In the next section some assumptions regarding feedback are discussed.

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ASSUMPTIONS OF FEEDBACK

According to The American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (2002), feedback refers to the “return of a portion of the output of a process or system to the input, especially when used to maintain performance or to control a system”. This explanation of feedback may seem to be straightforward enough, but conceptual confusion is continually created with the advent of new terminology (i.e. distance learning, distributed learning, open learning, e-learning, flexible learning, learning portal and virtual classrooms).
There are a number of key assumptions about feedback as reported in literature which I deem relevant to this study:
Feedback is not simply a matter of linear communication, but involves complex “issues of emotion, identity, power, authority, subjectivity and discourse” (Higgins, et al. 2001: 272).
The above assumptions on feedback call for a dialogue on feedback, particularly between staff are a result from the above assumption. These views place the credibility and reliability of given feedback into question. It further alerts DE practitioners, particularly the staff that are grading and marking and providing feedback to students, to bear in mind these issues, which if not taken into consideration might have a negative effect on the feedback given.
“Staff and students are active participants (partners) in an interactive feedback process, which supports students in seeking to construct meanings based upon their own experience and beliefs, formulate their own learning goals and engage in actions to achieve those goals in a continuous reflexive process” (Price, Karen, Handley & Millar, 2011:883).
This assumption in a way overlaps with the first assumption as it makes reference to the working relationship between students and staff with regards to feedback. It implies also on the student-centeredness of feedback and expectation from students to engage with the feedback. Ideally, feedback should be conceptualised from students, tutors and teaching-learning processes. However, written feedback to students in itself serves as a learning-teaching tool which is supposed to compel students on a self-correcting or reflexive process when engaging with it.
Assessment and feedback are culturally and contextually situated.
Firstly one has to assess before feedback is provided on a given learning task. Hence, effective feedback should be viewed as a multi-faceted and ongoing process that is relational and situated in a socio-cultural context.
The inextricable link between assessment and feedback is evident in the following definition of assessment given by (Black & William, 1998:22): “Assessment refers to those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged”. It is suffice to state that feedback is specific information (written or oral) that a student receives as a result of assessment.
“Feedback is the interface between teachers’ pedagogical goals, students’ learning needs, and institutional and governmental education policies, which structure and regulate practices and procedures” (Bailey & Garner, 2010:188).
The challenge for the above assumption is: how to effect the proposed linkage of feedback with assessment strategies, curriculum design, and teaching-learning processes? Another challenge is lack of a clear demarcation of roles and purposes of each of these components and how they interlink with each other. The absence of clear distinctive directives creates not only tension, but also confusion in tutors’ roles with regard to the support and facilitation of students’ learning and assessment of written work.
Gamlem and Smith (2013:155) cite that the studies done by “researchers point out that feedback leads to learning gains only when it includes guidance about how to improve; when students have opportunities to apply the feedback; understand how to use it; and are willing to dedicate effort”.
Feedback is conceptualised as information provided by an external agent regarding some aspect(s) of the student’s task performance, intended to modify the learner’s cognition, motivation and/or behaviour (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Shute, 2008).
For a considerable period of time, feedback has been viewed and accepted as information transmitted from the tutor to the student. The recent view proposed by Boud and Molly (2013) is that feedback should be bilateral and that multilateral information should make students active learners, seeking their own judgements by consulting various other sources. While concurring with the above view, I foresee challenges not only with what tutors do with feedback during assessment interactions, but also how the courses and assignments are designed and structured in ODL.
It is suffice to argue that feedback is a dialogue. Dialogue is more than conversation or an exchange of ideas, it involves relationships in which participants think and reason together (Gravett & Petersen, 2002). Being regarded as a dialogue, feedback can help facilitate the self-reflective process through which students can become actively involved in their learning and, as a consequence, advance their learning (Marriott, 2009). Thus, feedback is part of the overall dialogue or interaction between tutor and student, not a one-way communication.
Another similar viewpoint is that feedback can be conceptualised as a transmission process in which teachers ‘transmit’ (feedback) communications to students about the strengths and weaknesses of their work, so that they can use this information to make subsequent improvements (Nicol & McFarlane-Dick, 2006). However, there is a call to “move beyond a view of feedback as a transmission and acknowledge the active role that students must play in such processes” (Nicol, Thomson & Breslin, 2014:103).
As mentioned above, I concur that feedback can be viewed as a transmission process. The feedback is normally transmitted from the tutor to the student. However, the problem expressed by Nicol and McFarlane-Dick (2006) regarding the transmission process is the existence of a false assumption that such feedback compels the students to embark upon corrective action. Their study provides evidence that students find feedback difficult, do not understand it and do not act on it. Another concern is that feedback is tutor-centred and thus might not help and prepare students for the challenges after studies. The deliberations about feedback as a transmission process infer feedback is a dialogue.
Feedback is also viewed as an instructional practice deemed to enhance both students’ skills and motivation (Crooks, 1988; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Bruning & Horn, 2000; Brown, 2004; Kellogg & Whiteford, 2009). Being regarded as a practice, feedback is supposed to consist of strategies and rules that could be applied in various situations. In addition, feedback practices must spell out procedures and processes which need to be followed.
It is imperative to draft and implement obligations for the staff to deliver effective feedback and the responsibilities for students to give, engage with, and use the range of feedback they receive.
While there are different ways in which feedback may be conceptualised as evident above, numerous researchers reason that feedback is under-conceptualised in extant higher education literature, which has the consequence that it is difficult to design effective feedback practices and to evaluate their effectiveness (Sadler, 1998; Yorke, 2003).
Nicol and McFarlane-Dick (2006) address wider feedback practices that can support students build self-assessment and self-regulation abilities in relation.to their thinking, motivation and behaviour during the learning process. This viewpoint moves the feedback process away from being a transmission of information from teacher to student, towards an on-going discussion to help build students’ knowledge, skills, confidence and perception about themselves as learners.
I advocate that feedback should be reconceptualised as a process or system, rather than an event, which is a more fundamental response to the impetus for change in assessment feedback. This may create a space to address the time-dependent nature of feedback activities. Having explained some conceptual issues on feedback, the next section continues to deliberate on the concept of feedback, with specific reference to the nature of feedback.
On the question of what feedback might constitute, the following could be answered:
written comments on assessments; oral feedback in lectures, seminars, and tutorials;
electronic feedback; sample answers; end of module examinations/tests, and generic feedback.
Cognisance must be taken of the core aspect of feedback which is a two-way flow. This is inherent to all interactions, whether human-to-human, human-to-machine, or machine-to-machine. For example in an organisational context, feedback is the information sent to an entity (individual or a group) about its prior behaviour so that the entity may adjust its current and future behaviour to achieve the desired result.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS
DECLARATION
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
ABSTRACT
KEY TERMS
LIST OF ABBREVIATIONS
CHAPTER 1 ORIENTATION
1.1 INTRODUCTION
1.2 BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
1.3 THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
1.4 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
1.5 PROBLEM FORMULATION
1.6 AIM AND OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY
1.7 RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
1.8 TRUSTWORTHINESS
1.9 ETHICAL CONSIDERATIONS
1.10 CHAPTER DIVISION
1.11 SUMMARY
CHAPTER 2 THEORETICAL AND CONTEXTUAL FRAMEWORKS
2.1 INTRODUCTION
2.2 THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
2.3 CONTEXTUAL FRAMEWORK
2.4 CONCLUDING REMARKS
CHAPTER 3 CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK: FEEDBACK AS A LEARNING SUPPORT TOOL IN ODL
3.1 INTRODUCTION
3.2 FEEDBACK: ASPECTS AND CHALLENGES
3.3 ASSUMPTIONS OF FEEDBACK
3.4 OVERVIEW ON MODELS OF ASSESSMENT FEEDBACK
3.5 FEEDBACK IN EDUCATIONAL PRACTICE
3.6 STRATEGIES FOR MAKING FEEDBACK EFFECTIVE
3.7 CONCLUDING REMARKS
CHAPTER 4 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
4.1 INTRODUCTION
4.2 RATIONALE FOR EMPIRICAL STUDY
4.3 RESEARCH DESIGN
4.4 RESEARCH METHODS
4.5 MEASURES FOR TRUSTWORTHINESS
4.6 ETHICAL MEASURES
4.7 CONCLUDING REMARKS
CHAPTER 5 ANALYSIS AND INTERPRETATION OF THE EMPIRICAL RESEARCH DATA
5.1 INTRODUCTION
5.2 RESEARCH PROCESS
5.3 DATA ANALYSIS
5.4 DATA INTERPRETATION
5.5 SUMMARY
5.6 CONCLUDING REMARKS
CHAPTER 6 SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
6.1 INTRODUCTION
6.2 SUMMARY OF RESEARCH FINDINGS
6.3 RESEARCH CONCLUSIONS
6.4 RECOMMENDATIONS
6.5 AVENUES FOR FURTHER RESEARCH
6.6 LIMITATIONS
6.7 CONCLUDING REMARKS
BIBLIOGRAPHY
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