When I was a practicing engineer I would submit reports and drawings for review. Each time they would come back covered in red pen. I would then go through making the updates and corrections necessary. Until one day I distinctly remember submitting a report and receiving it back on my desk I scoured it for corrections, but there were none. I was initially unsure what was going on, then I doubted my ability to find the corrections and looked through again and again trying to find the mistakes I had made, before it finally dawned on me, there was nothing to correct, the report was good to go, just as it was.
Moving across to academia I still remember vividly meeting with my mentor as I worked towards becoming a fellow of the HEA. I had only been full-time teaching for a few months and in that time had won a Bristol Teaching Award and been asked to give a Best of Bristol lecture. My opinion of my teaching was pretty high and because of these two facts I quickly and sloppily threw together a report. It received some incredibly humbling feedback that at the time felt like a gut punch that left me in a bad mood for days and I still haven’t forgotten about it (hence I am writing about it again here!). But in reality, it was very helpful and enabled me to go on and do lots more.
The reason I share these two experiences with you is because the topic of feedback is currently on my mind, a lot! Last week I submitted two books for review. The first was the book that my co-authors and I had spent time correcting. On receiving the feedback, I think we all went through the same cycle of emotions (but could be wrong). The initial shock and anger that anyone might find something wrong. The assumption (and fear) that maybe the book wasn’t good enough. Followed by a more timely consideration of the comments that both made me realise that, far from being against me and the content, the reviewers were trying to help. Help improve it so that it may have more impact. Try to help me from saying things that might make me look foolish. Endeavour to help me make the book clearer and simpler to read. In understanding that they were trying to help made me recall the reports I used to receive back on, which never had any positive comments, but you knew, when one landed with no comments, that you had done a good job. Here again the positives were not gushing – but they were there, especially when we spoke to the reviewers. And so my final emotion was gratitude. Gratitude to the reviewers who have hopefully helped make the book better, more consistent, and readable. I am trying to hold on to that emotion as I wait for their second round of comments.
We also sent off the Regenerative Design book for comment. This time the purpose is different. We know the book needs work but we want an initial response from a few senior figures to help us shape and develop the content. To ensure we get constructive feedback we have provided a list of questions about the content, the order of content, and the style. If we are honest about what we want, there are some things I hope they agree with me on. Other things I am genuinely interested to know their thoughts as we have multiple options and some outside perspective will help us decide the best way forward.
All of this thinking about feedback links into my teaching and raises the question – what is the best way to give feedback? Last year, I ran a large unit (40cp) that was innovative and challenging from a variety of perspectives. It included several formative feedback cycles before the summative feedback. The unit feedback was the worst in the school. I know as I get to see all the scores for all the units in my school as School Education Director. The reasons for this are complex, but one of the main themes was that whilst the feedback on the formative assessment was positive and not particularly challenging, the summative feedback was much more critical. I understand why the students said this, and we have promised to address it. But I am still grappling with how best to give feedback. I am wondering if, like for our draft book, we should ask the students to give us specific items they would like feedback on. I am also thinking about how best to share the feedback and my own experience with feedback so that they can benefit from it and develop through it. After all much changes in how we see feedback over time. As I discovered when meeting a subset of my students early this term, and who, having reflected on the unit and the feedback, could now see things very differently.