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The importance of just-in-time student feedback through continuous assessment

Thinking back on your higher or secondary education experience, can you recall a time when you were disappointed by delayed and/or vague feedback following an assessment? Whether the feedback in question was tied to an ordinary coursework task or a high-stakes assessment, many of us have encountered that situation of feedback falling short of expectations and leaving us feeling underprepared for a subsequent stage of the subject or course.

Amanda De Amicis
Amanda De Amicis
Content Writer

Thinking back on your higher or secondary education experience, can you recall a time when you were disappointed by delayed and/or vague feedback following an assessment? Whether the feedback in question was tied to an ordinary coursework task or a high-stakes assessment, many of us have encountered that situation of feedback falling short of expectations and leaving us feeling underprepared for a subsequent stage of the subject or course.

Different educators approach and assign feedback differently, but we can probably all agree that greater quality and strategic use of student feedback is of benefit to learning outcomes, and it’ s a realisation that has only gathered strength since the Covid-19 pandemic. After the disorientation of the almost overnight shift to remote learning, thoughts soon turned to rethinking feedback loops in online environments to nurture student engagement and preserve learning continuity.

Time constraints and the problems of scalability for constructing and delivering customised feedback have long hampered efforts of even the most dedicated educators, but are we now at a point to remedy the limitations of the past? The digital era has been a boon for ‘just-in-time feedback’ to guide student performance, and continuous assessment to anchor the process has become far more feasible with technology-assisted tools that extend upon manual methods.

Awareness of just-in-time feedback’s value

The value of timely, detailed feedback may seem obvious, especially to those familiar with ‘Visible Learning’ author Professor John Hattie and his seminal work on The Power of Feedback, yet the mechanisms for ‘just-in-time’ feedback are not always fully understood nor prioritised in the assessment process. Well-meaning educators and teaching assistants operating within institutional frameworks face the inevitable time crunch, and students themselves face their own challenges in readiness and consideration of feedback; especially in a higher education setting where competing unit or course demands are at play.

It’s important to recognise that the delivery of feedback by its very nature, follows a sequential order, and this timing has a big bearing on the learning outcomes it is designed to produce. In their 2021 study on feedback literacy amongst teachers, David Boud and Phillip Dawson reinforce that “feedback occurs at a time and location, and within the context of other assessment and learning events, and participants described placing and connecting feedback carefully.” This demonstrates keen awareness of ‘time and place’ in the provision of feedback by educators, but of course, this doesn’t always translate successfully in practice.

Different institutional factors and ecosystems can skew the parameters for responsive feedback so that it doesn’t necessarily occur at the point in time in which it is needed most, or is otherwise lacking. If feedback agility takes a backseat to the practicalities of summative feedback, what does this mean from a student perspective and what can be done to make feedback more targeted to learners?

Students front and centre of feedback

We now raise another, seemingly obvious point that students’ needs must be front and centre of feedback, but it warrants repeating. Especially when disconnects in educator-student communication often undermine student outcomes, as witnessed in student disengagement and poor grade performance. In her 2019 study of first-year university students’ engagement with feedback, Alina Georgeta Mag concluded that “even if teachers are convinced that they give enough and appropriate feedback, the students have different perceptions”.

Truth be told, traditional feedback loops have a tendency to view learners as passive recipients of feedback. They operate on educator discretion, with regards to frequency, timing and detail of feedback, rather than a two-way flow of feedback dependencies. In other words, students wait for feedback at fixed intervals and are rarely invited or empowered to input on the efficacy of that feedback. It’s refreshing then, to see the current-day expansion of feedback processes from both methodology and technological standpoints, which work in parallel.

We’ve seen the education sector embracing technology-assisted messaging and collaboration tools beyond basic LMS features, in order to innovate on feedback delivery. We’ve also seen an extension of constructivist approaches to learning, the embracing of more formative feedback to scaffold learning, and even co-construction of rubrics with students for maximum learning ownership. Underpinning these strides is the philosophy of ‘dialogic feedback’ , which is gaining momentum as a way to build more trust in feedback exchanges that increase student receptiveness to critique, and in turn, open educators up to reflective practice as it relates to their teaching methods. It’s anchored on meaningful, ongoing conversations that vest more power with students to engage with educators and take active ownership of their learning. However, more work is needed in this area, with research pointing to assessment literacy and time and resourcing challenges that affect success.

It’s not altogether surprising that the education sector has reached this inflection point. Without the in-person setting to bolster student-educator understanding, online and asynchronous environments have exposed the shortcomings of traditional feedback and compelled institutions to adjust their thinking. It’s unlikely institutions could revert back to older ways in either practice or vision of feedback, with new demands taking hold for an emerging generation of students and workers. Case in point, a 2017 survey of millennials in the workplace found that “80% of millennials said they prefer on-the-spot recognition over formal reviews, and feel that this is imperative for their growth and understanding of a job preparedness”, suggesting that students have higher expectations of feedback that institutions must address for student retention and success.

Students as active participants in feedback

We appear to be reaching a consensus that students have a bigger role to play in the provision and advancement of feedback for learning, but what do they typically want and need? There's no doubt that impactful feedback can be complicated for educators, with the most-well intentioned and detailed feedback still being subject to misunderstandings, not to mention the emotional resistance to feedback that routinely occurs in education settings and beyond. That being said, students are still hungry for constructive feedback. Dawson et al.’s 2018 study on staff and student perspectives on what makes for effective feedback is one of many echoing the finding that actionable feedback is what students crave to inform next steps for learning.

So, thinking back to the traditional models of feedback - where control is vested with the educator to dictate timing, frequency and type within a generally prescribed timeframe - some assumptions are at work. With only educator-directed insights to inform next steps of learning, who’s to say what’s actually usable for students? Where are the mechanisms to check for ongoing understanding? For instance, if a round of feedback following a key formative task is delivered too late, or worse still, overlooked before rollout of a summative assessment, it casts doubt on whether students will receive instruction that is just-in-time, in order to improve for the next assessment. Furthermore, if we miss the window in which students are most receptive to feedback on their performance, how do we combat discouragement and apathy?

This discussion conjures John Hattie’s advice for educators to “think of feedback that is received, not given”. It’s quite a powerful statement in addressing the reality that student satisfaction with feedback is an important predictor of success. Even the most well-reasoned feedback is rendered rather useless if students perceive it as inapplicable or ‘too little, too late’. And the only meaningful way we can determine if ‘given’ feedback is fully ‘received’, is if students are co-constructors in the feedback loop with a clear opportunity to provide feedback on feedback. In this way, student feedback is also invaluable to teaching practice, situating both stakeholders as beneficiaries of just-in-time feedback workflows, as demonstrated by David Carless and Naomi Winstone’s 2020 study.

Technology’s role in advancing assessment and feedback loops

For a just-in-time feedback strategy to even get off the ground, let alone flourish, it has to be feasible for both hybrid and remote settings. Technology is the linchpin in efforts to strengthen feedback quality and opportunities in a hybrid education landscape, offering educators the ability to infuse feedback in more ways than ever before. This includes transmission of information to meet students where and as they work, artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver feedback more intuitively and in real-time, and leveraging data and learning analytics to help pinpoint knowledge gaps.

Consider the 2021 study in which John Hattie teamed up with Turnitin researchers to examine feedback that leads to improvement in student essays. Using both high school and university data in the form of 3,204 student essays submitted through Turnitin Feedback Studio, results were gleaned following the initial submission, receipt of feedback, and resubmission of essays to generate final scores. They discovered that ‘where to next’ feedback was most powerful, and that “the use of a computer-aided system of feedback augmented with teacher-provided feedback does lead to enhanced performance over time”.

Such promise of feedback technologies is echoed in Australia, including a 2019 Australian study on the impact of online feedback on essay-writing performance of first-year university nursing students via an online tutoring platform. Through analysis of essay performance and students’ sense of self-efficacy, it was determined that “provision of prompt or ‘just in time’ feedback using an online feedback mechanism, can greatly enhance students’ essay writing performance.” And in their 2020 research on student attitudes to personalised feedback from learning analytics, Yilmaz and Yilmaz contend that weekly feedback informed by learning analytics was especially useful in identifying learning gaps ripe for self-assessment and self-correction.

Both studies lend considerable credibility to the notion that engaging students with feedback at the times most convenient to them ought to be a greater priority. In fact, it’s this philosophy that inspired the development of Turnitin Draft Coach as a way to help students improve their academic writing and research skills by providing instant feedback where they write.

The future of just-in-time feedback

At the end of the day, feedback is a balancing act between students’ needs and teaching resources, and institutions must consider what strategies and feedback technologies they will implement to enable both students and teachers to thrive. Frontline educators will typically feel the pull to be more in-depth and personalised in their teaching and feedback practices, whereas administrators are compelled to safeguard the efficiency and scalability of learning programs. Both are noble pursuits, but by their very nature can work in competition; especially in a higher education setting. How can we reconcile the two, to enhance the individual and collective student experience?

Building resilience and agility to handle unchartered territory in the post-pandemic education system and rethinking pedagogy and feedback methodology is at the crux. And doing it in tandem with technology is crucial to inspiring innovation and supporting scalability. We’ve spoken to many education leaders and academics about the potential of feedback technologies as part of our Integrity Matters vidcast, such as Dr Edd Pitt, who sees its value in enriching the dialogic aspect of feedback to support every step of the learning journey. Similarly, Dr Preman Rajalingham has anticipated the role of machine learning in delivering instant feedback to bridge the gaps humans cannot fill, prompting dialogue on the responsible use of AI.

The task at hand is for institutions to reevaluate their framework for continuous assessment and just-in-time feedback, and establish partnerships with edtech providers so that pedagogy and technology can work together to champion feedback.