Students’ use of online feedback in a first-year tertiary biology course 

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Chapter 3 Theoretical framework informing the research

In mixed-methods research, a theoretical foundation is a stance (or lens) that provides direction for the many phases of the study (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011). The current study has been informed by many comprehensive theories about assessment and feedback, drawn from the work of researchers from the last 50 years. In reviewing Kuhn’s four types of paradigms, Morgan (2007) identified the more specific version “paradigms as shared beliefs in a research field” (p. 51) as meaningful for combining quantitative and qualitative methods (Morgan, 2007). An advantage for studies guided by this type of paradigm involves the examination of the work of actual researchers. As Wiliam (2011) has noted, theories of assessment and feedback in the context of learning proposed by many researchers have signalled notable shifts in shared assumptions since the 1960s. There has been a shift from predominant views of educational assessment as norm-referenced testing separate from instruction to more guided development of an individual’s learning toward become self-monitoring. Although many of the earlier theories underpinning assessment practice no longer provide an adequate way of thinking, it is important to be mindful of these shifts in theories about assessment and feedback. Many of the earlier ways of thinking about assessment have a residual influence in current assessment practice. In this study, the primary theoretical framework used to inform the data collection and analysis is Hattie and Timperley’s 2007 theory and model of feedback. This chapter outlines some of the research contributions to the concept of feedback alongside and relevant to the justification for using Hattie and Timperley’s 2007 model to inform this study.

Assessment and feedback

Theories of assessment and feedback are inherently informed by, if not derived from, existing theories and meta-analyses. Many studies on feedback have sought to elucidate the properties or mechanisms of feedback and the circumstances or systems in which feedback may be most effective. In the mid-20th century, Benjamin Bloom (1968) questioned the usefulness of the predominant educational instruction of the time, where the needs and differences of individual learners were uncoupled from the teaching process (Bloom, 1968). Bloom challenged the expectations of teachers in a system where a sorting process excluded many students from progressing to further educational goals as evidenced by the “normal curve” which ranked students in a distribution that is appropriate to “chance and random activity” (p. 2). A learner’s competency was indicated by their rank position displayed in a grade distribution (normal curve) and did not necessarily reflect the real achievement of students such as “high achievers.” This mindset was challenged by the idea that there exists the potential for all students to learn a subject to a high level, triggering further investigations in this field. Thus, the countenance of assessment in education began to change, with a shift to consideration of strategies that promote the fullest development of the learner. Formative evaluation was a term first introduced by Scriven (1967), as having the capacity to provide diagnostic information to learners and teachers, and subsequent identification of the particular ideas, skills and processes that are proving difficult and require further work. Bloom (1968) identified the importance of feedback to teachers as information enabling modification in future instruction through group instruction, and feedback to students about steps that can be taken to correct difficulties (corrective behaviours).
Wiliam (2011) claims Bloom’s introduction of the process of “feedback” into the language of assessment has been counterproductive as he separated the information from actions required for improvement (Wiliam, 2011). Although the concept of feedback was in wide usage across many disciplines, there was little consensus on a definition. Ramaprasad’s (1983) definition clarified feedback as information communicated in a system or organisation about a gap or discrepancy between and actual and reference level, that only becomes feedback once it is used to alter the gap. “The information about the gap, by itself, is not feedback. The information can be called feedback only if, and when, the information is used to alter the gap” (Ramaprasad, 1983, p. 8). In learning contexts, a response or action by students to “do” something to correct errors (i.e., Bloom’s corrective behaviours) would be required to alter a gap and enable gains in learning to be made. Where this affects future performance, then the information provided becomes feedback. The action(s) taken by learners where the information is validated as feedback in the learning cycle continues to be an important research question, including for the current study.
Feedback as knowledge of results was a predominant feedback intervention for the early 20th century despite many of the knowledge of results research studies of the time having major problems such as inconsistent results and poor methodology (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). Knowledge of results can be summative in delivery and purpose and does not necessarily support further learning or effect improvement (Sadler, 1989). Sadler challenged the definitions of Kulhavy (1977) and Kulik and Kulik (1988), who adopted Kulhavy’s generic definition of feedback was “any of the numerous procedures used that are used to tell a learner if an instructional response is right or wrong” (p. 211). Kulhavy (1977) went on to identify the potential in feedback for learning, beyond knowledge of results, suggesting when errors occur, students are able “to engage in corrective behaviour” (p. 224), although there was no evidence to support the efficacy of such behaviour in the literature at the time. Kulhavy proposed a continuum of feedback information from the basic correct or incorrect to increasing complexity providing corrective information to a point where the feedback becomes new instruction. Kulhavy asserts “feedback performs its corrective function correctly only if mistakes result from faulty interpretation and not lack of understanding” (p. 224). According to Kulhavy, it is the learner’s failure to comprehend the material in the first place that means feedback will have nothing more than a cursory effect on performance. Sadler (1989) rejected this notion of feedback and argued that formative assessment requires a conceptualisation and technology distinct from summative assessment (Sadler, 1989). Further, he identified feedback information having an effect as the key element in formative assessment (Sadler, 1989). This is in contrast to the provision of informational content to the learner in a passive state. Although Kulhavy (1977) posited how feedback can influence learning, he acknowledged that it is important to “expand the canvas so that it includes a most important feature – the student” (p. 224). When developing a theory about feedback, Sadler’s focus included students in an active role. He built on Ramaprasad’s universal definition of feedback, in which the information is not feedback until it is used in some way to alter the gap (by the learner). If the information does not allow for an appropriate action then it is merely “dangling data” and not effective feedback. The critical conditions in Sadler’s theory of feedback, centre on the student simultaneously having a concept of the standard (reference level), comparing their level to this standard, and then taking appropriate action, resulting in closure of the gap. Under these conditions, the student is able to become “self-monitoring.” Sadler claimed it is preferable to reduce dependency on the teacher, although it is important the student has access to the teacher’s guild knowledge in order to understand what constitutes a quality performance and develop their own evaluative expertise.
The role of the teacher and student in the feedback process influences the level of agency that learners have, whether it is minimal and feedback use is mechanistic, or students are more responsive (Boud & Molloy, 2013). Hattie and Timperley’s model positions the student in terms of receiving and responding to feedback and, as such, provides a framework in which to explore student use and understanding of feedback.

Hattie and Timperley (2007) framework of feedback

Hattie and Timperley (2007), in a comprehensive meta-analysis of feedback, synthesised substantial evidence about the effectiveness of feedback, which has utility in identifying the moderators with greater effect sizes. This summary underpins their theoretical stance about the properties and conditions whereby feedback promotes effective learning. Hattie and Timperley (2007) also concur with Sadler (1989) that the closing of this gap, between what is understood and what is aimed to be understood, is the purpose of feedback, which should “reduce discrepancies between current understandings/performance and a desired goal.” (Hattie & Timperley 2007, p.86). They conceptualise feedback as information provided by an agent (from a diversity of sources) about aspects of one’s understanding or performance. This resonates with the general definition put forward by Ramaprasad (1983) and applied to learning by Sadler (1989); both focus on the action required such that information given becomes effective in learning processes, i.e., feedback. Hattie and Timperley (2007) provide a further lens on the action undertaken, by revisiting the assertion that there is a continuum of instruction and feedback. The continuum concept is valuable in removing the discontinuous or discrete aspect often associated with learning in blocks or modules with learning outcomes (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Hattie and Timperley’s definition of feedback includes the various contributions or actions of students, teachers, peers, family and others as part of the complexity, fluidity and intricacy alluded to by Kulhavy (1977). These actions are critical in reconstructing what was unfettered information into productive and effective feedback that enhances learning in some way. Hattie and Timperley (2007) proposed a model which presents feedback operating as part of a multidimensional and granular process, which supports Sadler’s (1989) assertion that “student development is multidimensional rather than sequential” (p. 123). Finally, Hattie and Timperley (2007) unpack the term feedback, indicating subtle differences that were previously covered by one term. More feedback terms have been incorporated that appropriately reflect the intended effect of the different information available when actioned by students.

The multidimensionality aspect: Four levels

Dimensionality manifests in the four different levels at which feedback can operate or influence its effectiveness:
Although there is no hierarchy intended in these groups, in that there is no requirement for one level at which feedback should operate before another, it is argued that an order of events and hierarchy becomes implicit from the influence of prior learning experience and research studies. A surface understanding of learning involving the acquisition of knowledge is related to task, whereas, developing strategies to correct errors or misunderstanding, by understanding process leads to a deeper understanding in learning. Surface learning is considered a lower level or less cognitively demanding level than deep learning.
Feedback about a task or product may provide information about whether it is correct or incorrect through to further content needed for the task to be accomplished. Task-level feedback can be more straight forward for teachers to provide to students and thus encourages a focus on more surface knowledge learning that is specific to the context. Consequently, feedback operating at the task level is considered to occur more frequently; however, it is not transferable to different contexts involving task completion. Feedback about task is more effective when corrective information is provided about errors (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Kulhavy, 1977).

What comes first? Task, process or self-regulation.

Feedback about task is context specific and often independent of other task feedback which may account for this level being more prevalent in learning environments. However, this can limit performance if feedback about process or how to complete tasks, which is transferable, is not provided (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). The inter-relationships of the levels are an important aspect of the multidimensionality. Learners are engaged in adding to their knowledge and understanding, encountering new contexts as they progress through courses working toward final goals. Learning in new contexts requires feedback at any one of these levels and high performance is achieved or maintained by switching effectively between levels. A self-regulated learner will be aware when task-level or process-level feedback is appropriate.
Feedback about process incorporates understanding the learning processes required or how to go about completing a task. Clearly, in many cases, it is preferable this occurs before or alongside a task stage activity. Alternatively, task or regulatory feedback may signal that access to process feedback is needed to reduce a discrepancy.
Feedback about self-regulation is considered in this model along a continuum of learner behaviours from minimal self-regulation strategies through to learners who are able to self-manage their learning. The interplay with or switching to other feedback levels relates to the learner’s position on the continuum of self-regulatory proficiency. Hattie and Timperley propose that there is a transactional cost involved in seeking feedback that relates to self-regulatory proficiency. Costs relate to effort required (in feedback seeking), face costs (potential loss of self-efficacy) and inference costs (the risk of inaccurate use of any feedback). Students with metacognitive skills of self-assessment and who are able to evaluate their learning needs, are more adept at knowing when and how to seek feedback from others. These students are more likely to switch with ease between levels. In contrast, for students who have these skills to a lesser degree, costs may be higher and they are less likely to interact with feedback levels.
Hattie and Timperley include feedback about self as a person, as approbation is present in learning environments and often replaces the other levels at which feedback operates. They distinguish between personal feedback as positive or negative evaluations of the person, which direct attention away from the task and do not translate into increased performance. Praise that positively describes ability and effort can enhance self-efficacy and so indirectly impact learning gains, although this was found to be age dependent in a study involving 8- to 12-year-olds (Burnett, 2002). This age-related variation in effect, although limited, suggests feedback about self also operates on a continuum, intertwining with the other dimensions or levels of feedback. Any risk to self will be incorporated by the student into the transactional costs associated with receiving feedback.

Information seeking

Approaches for seeking information provide further dimensionality in Hattie and Timperley’s model. In the model, information about how to reduce discrepancies between current performance and a goal can be sought by asking any or all of three questions at any one of the feedback levels. The questions (“How am I going?”, “Where am I going?”, and “Where to next?”) can lead to learner actions that have an effect to reduce the discrepancy. Hattie and Timperley qualify these questions as feed back, feed up, and feed forward respectively. Unpacking the previously overarching term feedback to the three terms feed back, feed up and feed forward is a strength of the theoretical framework. The type of action becomes implicit to the learner. It is timely to revisit Ramaprasad’s (1983) definition for feedback as it operates to regulate a system, where an action has reduced the gap between the reference level and the actual level. If “How am I going?” is the equivalent of feedback applied to a learning context, the learner has confirmation that the information given and action taken has allowed them to reach the goals they set out to accomplish. When the action reduces the gap between two levels,and is effective in maintaining stability in the system, it is negative feedback (Ramaprasad, 1983). Conversely, if the gap is widened, then it is positive feedback. “Positive” feedback is viewed as pushing the system in the direction it is already going and can tend to toward instability, whereas “negative” feedback produces stability by bringing a system back to a former state. Ramaprasad (1983) points out this is contrary to commonly held beliefs about positive and negative feedback and may cause confusion. “In common parlance, and some scientific literature, the distinction is based on the emotional connotation to the recipient, of the action triggered.” (p. 9). Incorporating feed up and feed forward in the model is similar to distancing the reference level in relation to the actual level of the learner, and feed back is confirmed when the consequence of the action taken has closed the gap. Feed up and feed forward lead the learner to take on more responsibility that can build metacognitive skills and mean they are more likely to work in the regulatory level. The addition of these questions is important to facilitate progress in learning to become a fluid and dynamic process as the questions are repeated by the learner. Learning will occur where the reference level is shifted, the gap widened and then the gap reduced by learner action. The terminology of feed up and feed forward have different implicit meanings to feed back and help clarify the type of action that is effective to support learning.
Student participation in formative assessment incorporating feedback is key (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Kulhavy, 1977; Sadler, 1989). Research on student perspectives about feedback indicates that they want feedback to support their learning (Beaumont et al., 2011). What needs further clarification is what feedback means to students in terms of the actions they need to or want to take in order to support their learning.

Chapter summary and reflection

How information is used as feedback or feed forward in the context of learning science is also important to consider. Many students have empirical views of the nature of science; their view of learning and the learning process can be limited in that they conceptualise learning as the transfer of prefabricated knowledge that is stored in memory (Duit & Treagust, 1998). This passive view of learning can influence how students work with and act on information they receive about their progress. A further influence on the use of feedback in learning can be a person’s commonplace understanding of the word, e.g., it can be a comment, observation or a rebuttal. This can carry both positive and negative connotations which can subconsciously influence a student’s way of thinking and behaviours. Feedback also has a distinct meaning in science where is it is used to describe regulatory processes in systems (both natural and physical). For example, homeostasis in biological systems maintains thermal, chemical and biological conditions through feedback. Feedback in this regard is bringing a system back to a desired point of balance. The system is regulated and, in a sense, under control of processes. When balance is reached, no further action is required. Boud and Molloy (2013) identified issues with the language of feedback based on its previous use in many fields including the sciences. These residual effects of the concept of feedback in other contexts have led to ideas and beliefs that feedback is external information about performance and students could benefit if they choose. There was an assumption that change could be brought about without the student taking part, such that feedback was synonymous with “telling” which is similar to the transmission of information (Boud & Molloy, 2013).

Table of Contents
List of Tables 
List of Figures
Chapter 1 Introduction and overview 
On becoming a teacher–researcher
The context of first-year tertiary education
Learning biological sciences in first-year university classes
Students as learners in university
Feedback through online systems
The significance of the research study
Chapter 2 Literature review 
Transitioning from school to university
Theoretical frameworks and learning
Sociocultural theories of learning
Effective feedback in formative assessment and learning
Formative assessment as part of a learning paradigm
Student participation in formative assessment for learning
Feedback at university
Feedback and self-regulated learning
Background to students entering higher education in New Zealand
Education reform in New Zealand: Secondary school qualifications
The introduction of standards-based qualifications: NCEA
Secondary school qualifications and transition to university
Chapter summary
The research questions
Chapter 3 Theoretical framework informing the research
Assessment and feedback
Hattie and Timperley (2007) framework of feedback
The multidimensionality aspect: Four levels
What comes first? Task, process or self-regulation
Information seeking
Chapter summary and reflection
Chapter 4 The research process 
Research paradigms
The positivist, postpositivist research paradigm
The interpretive paradigm
Mixed methodology
Mixed methodology in science education
Practice site and context for the research
MasteringBiology and the theoretical framework used in this research
The research design: A two-phase approach
Chapter 5 Phase 1: Students’ use of online feedback in a first-year tertiary biology course 
Phase 1 of the research
Research goals
The sampling frame and sample size for Phase 1
Data analysis
Hint usage CFA
Structural model: Hint usage and achievement
Chapter summary
Chapter 6 Tertiary students’ perceptions on feedback use in an online system
Phase 2 methods
Focus groups
Strengths and weaknesses of focus groups
Sampling frame and selecting the participants for Phase 2 focus groups
Piloting the focus groups sessions
Conducting the focus groups
Focus group session activities
Stimulated recall activity design for focus group sessions
Data analysis
Analysing the focus groups
Ethical considerations
Informed consent
Anonymity and confidentiality
Minimisation of risk
Findings: Students perceptions on the use of the online feedback system
Online systems support learning
Not seeking help (“feed forward”) in the online system is strategic
Using the online system is an obligation
Maximum efficiency is strategic in online systems
Resistant to online help seeking
Open to online systems and mindful of long-term benefits
Chapter summary
The next chapter.
Chapter 7 Students’ conceptions and use of feedback in a multidimensional context
Diamond ranking of feedback statements
Diamond ranking activity design for focus group sessions
Ranking of statements
Findings: Students’ beliefs and understandings about using feedback
Prevailing feedback use is at task level
Student use of feedback at the process level is limited
Students challenged by feedback at the level of self-regulation
Desire for feedback at self-level
Context matters when using feedback
Focus is on assessments that contribute marks to grades
Limited time impacts students’ learning
A safe learning environment is reliant on relationships with peers and teachers
Peers cannot be relied on
Students believe teachers’ expectations are variable and difficult to manage
Students need to maintain their reputation
Chapter summary
The next chapter
Chapter 8 Discussion, implications, conclusions and recommendations 
Summary of findings
Discussion of the findings
Technology as feedback system
Students’ perceptions about the utility of technology as feedback
Time constraints and the need to be strategic
Students’ perceptions about negotiating the different levels of feedback
Influence of emotional responses on feedback utilisation
Implications for theoretical frameworks in education
Implications for policy in higher education institutions
Implications for teaching practice
Recommendations for future research
Concluding comments
Students’ use and understanding of feedback in a university context: How and why students use feedback

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