Adopting a flavoursome approach to making feedback moreish

No one doubts that feedback is a powerful tool within the learning process. In many respects it is critical to enabling progression. Several projects being conducted by the CATS Cambridge research community suggest that getting feedback right, and ensuring that it is understood and applied requires a highly nuanced individualised approach. Successful feedback is argued to be more a synthesis of perspectives than a one-way transmission from provider to recipient. Providers and recipients must enter into a dialogue built on connection and trust, a social engagement which is also informed by a deep appreciation of potential factors that may influence interpretation and resultant actions, for example, language, cultural relativity, personality as well as the condition of the student’s existing learning. In short, providers and recipients of feedback must find the flavour that works best for their connection. Finding that flavour requires providers and recipients to have a shared vocabulary and shorthand for feedback that goes beyond the words.

Teaching is the most vicarious of occupations; success can only really be measured in the success of others. Educators draw on many tools and techniques to facilitate progress and development, key among them is feedback. I doubt anyone would disagree that feedback has a fundamental role in enabling progress. Optimising the way that feedback is delivered, and perhaps as importantly, how it is received and acted upon should be a key consideration for all educators.  

Amid the frenetic backdrop of the school day, the school week, the term, the academic year, there is always the risk that feedback is not afforded the attention it deserves. Inattentiveness in the formulation, delivery or, for that matter, receipt and response to feedback, certainly sub-optimise student progress. The impact of feedback that is poor in content and/or in the way it is delivered it might have actively impeded progress, serving to demotivate or create unattended flawed understandings that may critically weaken the foundation on which progression is built, leaving the real risk of academic subsidence at a later point.  

It is easy to understand how a teacher might become frustrated when not one of the twenty notes offered to improve on an essay was acted upon in the student’s next submission; I have been that teacher. Equally, one can understand the despondency of students who do not really understand the feedback they are offered or how to act upon it – I fear I may have been that teacher too! Yet, if you asked students or teachers about the importance of feedback, they would all respond that it is likely the secret to success. When time is short and the scheme of work is loaded to the gunwales it is tempting for a teacher to retreat to ‘must try harder’, or students to focus intently on the ‘grade’, though neither provide any real clues as to how learning might actually be improved. 

At CATS Cambridge we have a lively school research community. Among the projects running currently, two specifically focus upon feedback. Paul Ibram, our Head of Business and Commerce, has been looking at how to optimise feedback for A-Level students studying economics, whilst Ruby Bell-Williamson, a House Director and Teacher of the Visual Arts, has been examining the implications of cultural differences for the efficacy of feedback. I interviewed them both for a vlog that supports this article. You can find that interview here:  

Key among Paul’s finding is the need to create a culture of collaboration within the feedback process. He has found that time invested upfront explaining the context of feedback, how it relates to assessment objectives and the procedures that will be followed, has a high rate of return. The benefits come from greater student engagement in the process, manifest in a heightened preparedness for the student to enter a dialogue. This leads to a greater chance of achieving a common understanding upon which the student can effectively build in their next submissions. Having described the process and procedure in detail, Paul then commits considerable time to providing feedback face-to-face and one-to one. When Paul talks about his experience there is a sense that he was worried that it would take too much time. The time investment was considerable, but in setting the scene and establishing a culture and routine for dialogue, he has found that meetings have become shorter as he and each of his students have established a shorthand to speed up the attainment of a common understanding. 

What is clear is that Paul has mastered the art of differentiating his feedback to the state of each students’ learning, cultural background, level of English, and. The dialogue has deepened his awareness of each student’s state of learning, ultimately allowing him to tailor his feedback to focus on how that student can move towards the next rung on the assessment objectives. This means that his students have the best of chances to make the next best step for them, and can do so with confidence, building academic momentum. 

Of course, the proof of any intervention is in the pudding. Paul has noted faster, better progress than he is seen previously, and anticipates that the students’ final grades will reflect the greater progress made during the delivery of the course content. Perhaps most importantly, there is little doubt that experience and skills developed by students in the art of receiving feedback, and entering into a dialogue with their teacher, will serve them very well in their later studies at undergraduate level and beyond. 

Establishing an effective dialogue is of critical importance. In settings where receivers and providers of feedback have different cultural backgrounds, several other factors need to be considered. Ruby’s project has looked at some of these issues. The most telling insight from her work is that ‘translation’ is not the same as ‘interpretation’. Whilst a student may understand the definition of the word, they may miss the semantic intent of the feedback provider. Ruby highlights the importance of being sensitive to verbal cues, specifically what linguistics experts refer to as, ‘upgraders’, and ‘downgraders’. Because paying attention to downgraders and upgraders allows you to pick up on a person’s communication style (direct or indirect) but also enables you to adapt your feedback to fit the situation. Downgraders are used by more indirect cultures, when giving negative feedback, as these words soften the criticism. Upgraders are used by more direct cultures, to strengthen the critics. 

A case in point comes from two cultures that we may think of as being relatively close to one another. interestingly, whilst the UK and the US are both low context when it comes to communicating, they seem divided by a common language. The Economist Style Guide1 provides a list of words where there is a risk of misinterpretation between the two vernaculars. Understanding the cultural context is key in order to interpret the message as it is intended. One of my favourites is the usage of ‘quite’. When an English person uses the word, ‘quite’, as in ‘quite’ good, it typically means that whatever is ‘quite good’, is a close approximation to being superlative version. In contrast, the American usage aligns closely with the dictionary meaning, ‘quite good’, means that which is ‘quite good’ has stumbled, gasping over the line to being acceptable. Issues with interpretation are not restricted to those who don’t share the same native tongue. 

Ruby’s work points to the benefits of how cultural differences might affect the recipient’s interpretation of the feedback, or their understanding of how they should respond and act upon it. Ruby reflects on Erin Meyer’s approach to mapping out the cultural differences. Highlighting in the interview that cultural relativity between the provider’s and recipient’s cultures is far more important than their absolute position with Meyer’s framework2. Inevitably this is where Paul’s approach pays real dividends. Most likely, cultural relativity may act to refract, diffract, and simply interfere with the message, obfuscated its intended effect. For example, English people’s propensity for relative understatement compared to many, though not all, other cultures, poses a real risk to interpretation.  

The most important part of the process is that the provider of the feedback is working with the recipient so that both the provider and the recipient have a mutual understanding of the feedback and the most appropriate way to respond to that feedback. Some cultures will need, ‘this is poor, you must…’, whilst others will find, ‘not bad, but you ought to consider…’  as the best of ways to elicit positive action. At the same time personality and educational background may also colour the way that feedback is optimised. These aspects will only likely be truly revealed through informal (though professional), relaxed interactions that allow providers and recipients to explore the differences in personality and background that may interfere in the feedback process. 

If feedback is to be optimised it needs to be based on a positive and trusting relationship borne of the common goal of achieving progress.  Though I spend much of my commute to and from work feeling very sorry for myself, it does afford me the opportunity to listen to the radio. I have found my way to BBC Radio 3 and have become a regular. I was drawn in by the fact that the orientation of  the station is towards the music, not all of which I like that much, most importantly they are resolute in the importance of their station to the music, so when it comes to the news, and discussions, the bulk of the chit chat relates to matters prior to about 1870, rarely drifting towards anything of contemporary relevance; blessed relief from the crisis of the time, be that COVID, Brexit or the UK Government imploding. I digress, among the shows to which I have listened was one that included an interview of a virtuoso pianist, Clive Owen, who had recently taken up a teaching post. The long and short of it was that the virtuoso spoke with great warmth and enthusiasm about how much he had learned from his students, and the show’s presenter, Sean Rafferty, noted the importance of mutual generosity between student and teacher, an assertion with which Clive Owen and Dame Imogen Cooper, another renowned pianist who had taught Clive Owen, were quick to wholeheartedly agree3. The conversation may have been about learning to become a virtuoso pianist, but it stands, I venture, in any teacher student relationship. It hints towards the fact that teachers have much to learn from their students that informs their professional practice – even, at times, the depth and development of their subject knowledge. 

Now the virtuoso pianist was teaching students who were already pretty good at playing the piano. The consequence in the current context is that they already had a shared language for engaging in the feedback process. When I reflect on my own schooling in the 1980s, I gravitated towards maths and the sciences because I seemed to understand what the teachers wanted. In contrast, whilst not being worse at arts or humanities, I felt I spent a good deal of time guessing at what was being asked for by those tasked with instructing me in such subjects. This meant that I took some solace from a blog on ‘curriculum’, that included a description of a project completed by a MEd candidate. The researcher, Kate Hammond, was motivated by the disturbing conclusion that she didn’t really have the words to explain the differences between the students who were secure GCSE A grade historians and those who were fragile GCSE A grade students. To Kate’s credit, she was keen to be able to mitigate the risk of fragile A grade students missing out on the grade of which they were clearly capable, also to her credit, she recognised that in the absence of appropriate direction through feedback, such mitigation would not be available. 

Kate undertook a detailed analysis of the responses to questions submitted by her A grade students. Christine Counsell does an excellent job of summarising her work4

“[Kate] noticed how word choice gave an analytic precision arising from acute sensitivity to period features.  Thus, a non-fragile A grade would choose to write ‘the public’ when judging a factor that led to the rise of the Nazis. Look at what the word ‘public’ is doing in this tight sentence handling a density of ideas:  

So, the Nazis could be argued to be relying on the Depression and the apparent lack of leadership caused by it to be noticed by the public and to retain their attention from that point”. 

Fragile performers, in similar efforts to weigh up the relative importance of a factor, reached for a word such as ‘the people’. It appears interchangeable. It wouldn’t lop off any marks. But it’s not as good. Choosing ‘the public’ gives this analytic claim more power.  A ‘public’ has agency. It can be appealed to. There are mechanisms by which a ‘public’ can respond. To grasp such a thing as a ‘public’ in early twentieth-century Germany and to know that it wouldn’t be quite the right word in another context is to know multiple things that sit behind that word. That knowledge seeps through and does indirect work. 

Hunting for a way to express this, Hammond eventually described this as ‘the knowledge that flavours the claim’.  Deft choice and deployment of other abstract nouns in the sentence similarly give analytic nuance within elegant concision.” 

“Knowledge that flavours the claim”, is an insight, I suspect, that has served her and students very well. Kate’s research will have become more ‘word conscious’ in her feedback, much to her students’ benefit. If only Kate had been my history teacher, I may have taken an entirely different path, actually, I suspect I would have found the path that I’m on rather earlier – clarity in the feedback among my teachers of arts and humanity subjects of what were then GCE O Levels, may well have steered me to different A levels etc. The point being, if it is proving elusive, that subject feedback of a grey autumn morning in October, may have a more profound influence that either provider or recipient may think. 

With a student constituency that is almost universal in its employment of English as a second language, the delivery of such specificity and clarity of abstractions (if that is not an unworkable oxymoron), will inevitably need scaffolding and dialogue to ensure that the correct advice is heard and acted upon. Paul was keen to highlight in his work that he has found an approach and a lexicon that works in his subject, Economics. It is an approach and lexicon which has been developed carefully with students and in many respects has been tailored to the condition of their learning and Paul’s understanding of how the student will best be encouraged to progress. When interviewed, Paul, was quick to point out that ‘one size would not fit all’.  

Interdisciplinary differences in conceptualisation and vocabulary means that feedback will need to be customised to the demands of the subject, the way the subject evolves and the way that subject is assessed. Each subject must find its own nuanced approach to feedback recognising that a shared vocabulary between provider and recipient is essential. As importantly, providers of feedback must be very sensitive to ensuring that the feedback has what Kate Hammond might say, the same ‘flavour’ to both the provider and the recipient. Which, naturally takes us back to Ruby’s work on cultural differences in matters of interpretation, highlighting the need to be mindful of potential ‘upgraders’ and ‘down-graders’; understanding the distinction is ‘quite’ important, in the English English sense of the word. 

Paul and Ruby’s work has been invaluable to kick starting our reappraisal of our approach to feedback. Time spent on feedback will never be wasted as long as the process is one which encourages mutually generous dialogue between provider and recipient, this is the only way to establish a common understanding, ensuring the feedback has the intended ‘flavour’, that cuts through the potential obstacles to progress posed by the differences between the translation and the interpretation.  

This will be assisted by a project that Hayley Pienaar a House Director and Teacher of English and Business is just starting. Hayley’s work will focus on ‘word consciousness’ and the development of what John Rodger’s coins as, ‘vocabulary capital’. The project is orientated towards students, though I can see some real merit in teachers undertaking something similar to Kate Hammond’s approach to identifying the ‘knowledge that flavours’ in each of their subjects and in doing so, enabling each of them to better craft the content and manner of their feedback to students, ’to see students and staff become more word-conscious in their approach, students becoming more receptive and expressive with their disciplinary vocabulary and classrooms becoming word-rich environments.’ (Rodgers, J. 2022) Examination boards, such as Pearson Edexcel, expect students to use subject terminology in their response to questions. At its heart, feedback is an exercise in communication. The choice of words is an essential component in achieving a common interpretation, ensuring that the feedback elicits a shared taste or flavour for both provider and recipient. Translation and definition are but the beginning, that being the case, knowing what it is that needs to defined and finding the vocabulary to express it, is an important prelude that all providers of feedback would be very wise to note; Kate Hammond’s approach to identifying the subtle markers that differentiate deep strong understanding from those with more fragile appreciation of the content.  As with all communication, the message is always mediated more significantly than we often think by the parties involved, their personality, their culture, their native tongue, their educational background. The importance of this aspect is amplified in any educational context, more so still in ones which are international. The art will always be to develop a pragmatic feedback process that enables resonation between provider and recipient. We have made some positive progress towards creating a feedback culture that enables such resonance, it remains a work in progress. Responsibility for the CATS Global Schools’ (CGS) teaching and learning article will swing back round to Cambridge in six months’ time, we will update you on our progress then. 

Before signing off, I must thank Paul, Ruby and Hayley for their generous enthusiasm and candour in their conversations with me. You can see a video of Ruby and Paul discussing their work with me by following this link: We would welcome any questions, suggestions or general feedback, please do contact me at: dtomalin@catscambridge.com  

References

BBC Radio 3, 2022. In Tune” 6th October 2022. [podcast] In Tune. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001cgkl> [Accessed 6 October 2022]. 

Butler, P., 1993. The Economist style guide. London: Economist Books. 

Counsell, C., 2018. Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide. [Blog] Dignity of the Thing, Available at: <https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/12/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indirect-manifestation-of-knowledge-b-final-performance-as-deceiver-and-guide/> [Accessed 12 October 2022]. 

Counsell, C., 2018. Senior Curriculum Leadership 1: The indirect manifestation of knowledge: (B) final performance as deceiver and guide. [Blog] Dignity of the Thing, Available at: <https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com/2018/04/12/senior-curriculum-leadership-1-the-indirect-manifestation-of-knowledge-b-final-performance-as-deceiver-and-guide/> [Accessed 12 October 2022]. 

References used by Paul for his project: 

Glaxton, G. (2002). Building Learning Power: Helping young people become better learners:  Bristol 

Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook I: Cognitive Domain  

Boud, D. Enhancing Learning Through Self-Assessment. (1995). London. Routledge Falmer. 

Ramsden, P. (1998). Improving Learning: New Perspectives. London: Kogan Page. 

References used by Ruby for her project: 

CSOFT, 2019. A look at how culture affects global business. International in Language and Culture. https://blog.csoftintl.com/a-look-at-how-culture-affects-global-business/ (accessed 15.10.2021)  
Didau, D. 2014. Getting feedback right. https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/getting-feedback-right/ (accessed 02.10.2021)   
Eriksson, K. 2020. Cultural variation in the effectiveness of feedback on students’ mistakes.  Frontiers in Psychology. 2019; 10: 3053.  
Fox, S. 2020. The Culture Map: Certainly not part of the flat earth society https://jumpfoundation.org/other/the-culture-map-certainly-not-part-of-the-flat-earth-society (accessed 04.10.2021)  
Hall, E. T. 1983. The dance of life, the other dimension of time. NY: Anchor books editions  
Hall, E. T. 1976. Beyond culture. NY: Anchor books editions  
Hall, E. T. 1959. The silent language, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc.  
Kavaliauskiene, G. 2012. Case Study: Learner Attitudes towards the Correction of Mistakes. Social Technologies, research journal. Vol 2, No 1 (2012) 
Leask, B. & Carroll, J. 2013. Learning and teaching across cultures. Good practice principles and quick guides. International education association of Australia (ieaa), Melbourne  
Lufkin, B. 2020. How ‘reading the air’ keeps Japan running. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200129-what-is-reading-the-air-in-japan (accessed 20.10.2021)  
Maats, H. & O’Brien, K. 2014. Teaching students to embrace mistakes. Edutopia https://www.edutopia.org/blog/teaching-students-to-embrace-mistakes-hunter-maats-katie-obrien (accessed 04.10.2021)  
Mamoon-Al-Bashir, The Value and Effectiveness of Feedback in Improving Students’ Learning and Professionalizing Teaching in Higher Education. Journal of Education and Practice. Vol. 7, No. 16, 2016 
Mast, R. 2019. Meeting, but not in the middle. CIS Perspectives https://www.cois.org/about-cis/perspectives-blog/blog-post/~board/perspectives-blog/post/meeting-but-not-in-the-middle (accessed 04.10.2021)  
Mei, T., Lowe, J. 2013. The role of feedback in cross-cultural learning: a case study of Chinese taught postgraduate students in a UK university. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education; Vol. 38 Issue 5, p580-598  
Menzies, F. 2016. The importance of hidden differences when working across cultures. https://cultureplusconsulting.com/2016/02/29/the-importance-of-hidden-differences-when-working-across-cultures/ (accessed 28.09.2021)  
Menzies, F. 2015. Nine cultural value differences you need to know. (https://cultureplusconsulting.com/2015/06/23/nine-cultural-value-differences-you-need-to-know/ accessed 28.09.2021)  
Metcalfe, J. 2017. Learning from errors. Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 68:465-489.  
Meyer, E. 2016. The Culture Map, Decoding how people think, lead and get things done across cultures. NY: Publicaffairs  
Molinsky, A. 2013. Global dexterity. How to adapt your behavior across cultures without losing yourself in the process. Brigthon MA: Harvard business review press.  
Molinksy, A. 2016. If you’re not outside of your comfort zone, you won’t learn anything. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2016/07/if-youre-not-outside-your-comfort-zone-you-wont-learn-anything (accessed on 05.10.2021)  
Molinsky, A. 2013. When crossing cultures, use global dexterity. Harvard business review. https://hbr.org/2013/03/when-crossing-cultures-use-glo (accessed 05.10.2021)  
Oxfam GB. 2015. Global citizenship in the classroom, a guide for teachers. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620105/edu-global-citizenship-teacher-guide-091115-en.pdf?sequence=9&isAllowed=y (accessed 01.10.2021)  
Oxfam GB. 2015. Education for global citizenship, a guide for schools. 

Reference used by Hayley for the start of her project 

Rodgers, J. 2022. Implementing high-quality teaching of disciplinary vocabulary. https://my.chartered.college/impact_article/implementing-high-quality-teaching-of-disciplinary-vocabulary-2/?utm_content=buffer4a6fa&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer (accessed 12/10/2022) 

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