David McClean - Queen`s University Belfast

HEA Enhancement Academy Workshop, Queens University, Belfast
‘It is impossible to overstate the role of effective feedback on the students’
progress in any discussion of effective teaching and assessment’
(Ramsden, 1992)
Although the broad theme for the workshop is that of Assessment, we all
recognise assessment and feedback as two sides of the same coin, and it is the
latter, feedback, that this presentation focuses on.
In broad terms. the centrality of feedback to the learning process, and to the
development of self-critical, reflective learners is broadly accepted. However, I
hesitate to say that it is well understood as I contend that there is much still to
comprehend about the dimensions of feedback, and indeed the notion of ‘feed
forward’, that determine its efficacy.
At a national level responses to the NSS in the subject of Architecture have
demonstrated a relatively poor perception of feedback practices. Yet the
phenomenon of design studio as a learning environment is one in which dialogue
is continuous, and feedback from formalised events frequently instantaneous. So
what might lie behind these generic perceptions? On the face of it, the fact that in
the NSS the general perception of feedback amongst architecture students is
poor, is at least interesting if not perplexing. I suggest that there may be many
reasons for this. For example, the fact that dialogue is relatively continuous in
studio, sets up an expectation for non-studio-based modules. But there are also a
number of fundamental areas that demand further understanding, and it is here
that I turn to the analogy with orienteering or trekking.
My main contention is that consideration of feedback processes and mechanisms
is central to the fundamental design of a project, or any element of learning.
Arguably, it is the most important aspect, yet is generally not afforded this status
at the stage when learning activities are designed.
Indeed, if feedback design is thoroughly considered in terms of how it is most
effective to the student, the design of projects is greatly simplified.
To illustrate this, the metaphor of the hill walk or mountain trek is used to
illustrate the value and relevance of designing learning as a student journey.
Route and Destination
We are all familiar with the notion of the learning outcome and the project brief.
In essence these describe the purpose and broad path of the journey, whilst the
assessment criteria in some way measure the ability to reach the destination in
terms of achieving a defined outcome, as well as evaluating the process
undergone in achieving this goal.
In considering a project it is commonplace to consider interim stages of the
learning process, and a brief will typically map out a skeleton route achieved by
reaching sign posts at defined points in the journey. We must remember that
learning often represents navigation through the complex terrain of a place new
to the student. To staff, the landscape is familiar. There is no need to consult the
map as its all in our heads; it is tacit. Yet arguably this is the initial point at which
clarity can become clouded, specifically because we do not revisit the route of the
journey and reflect sufficiently on its detail and array of challenges.
Generally, without any prior introduction to the subject area of architecture, there
is evidence from student feedback to suggest that the learning process is initially
opaque and surrounded in mystique (Anthony, 1999).
Indeed, I would suggest that clarity of purpose and clarity of performance /
progress are two sides of the same coin. The results of a longitudinal study of the
perceptions of architecture students conducted over a 4 year period revealed the
following as key academic challenges in transition to Higher education:
Clarity of guidance + expectation
New ways of working
Assuming responsibility for own learning
Workload / time management
Feedback and understanding progress
The first and last points bear a close relationship to one another.
In design, the degree to which the route requires articulation is dependent on the
level of skill and independence of the student, influenced also by the degree to
which the student has individually determined or selected their own remit, or
path. Depending on the level of study, tutors may wish to define tutorial points
along the route to offer guidance and facilitate student achievement. Such tutorial
points are key points of feedback. Thinking about a project as a learning journey,
as the student progresses over time, so we move the stage posts apart
commensurate with ability, level, and capability for self-propulsion and selfdirection. In other words, the programming of the learning process undertaken
through the project is founded on, and revolves around, feedback opportunities.
Returning to the metaphor, in planning a journey we naturally take into account
the level of experience of those in the party. How skilled or knowledgeable are
they, how confident, what safety nets may be required?
So far, all this may seem very obvious, but there are pitfalls that can mar the
apparent clarity of the learning journey.
The principal of these relates to the dichotomy in design between product and
process. For understanding of the journey to be clear, the fundamental purpose
must be agreed and clearly articulated – collectively agreed by tutors, and with /
by students.
During the 1990s, understanding of the cognitive properties of design was
advanced, offering new potential for the development of this field. However, as
observed by Marda (1997), it still remains the case that the importance of the
designed output in education remains the dominant focus, with matters of
process playing a lesser role in our judgements. In relation to assessment, it is
equally argued that the Achilles heel of studio as traditionally approached, is that
evaluation focuses on the final output or product rather than on the measurement
of ‘increments of knowledge’ acquired as a result of studio.
This brings me back to the issue of clarifying the fundamental purpose of the
learning. In a subject, such as architecture, where the academic programme is
intertwined with the profession’s requirement for demonstration of competence –
the focus becomes very readily placed on output. This can recall the days of the
Beaux Arts and of highly prescribed training in which the student followed the
master, and the dictat of the pattern book, in doing so undertaking a particular
learning journey. Today, we talk of pluralism and exist in a period of rapid
professional change, and critically, we increasingly describe the fundamental
learning as the students ‘being able to think’. The Beaux Arts served a clear
purpose within its historical context, but continuity of its methods would be
inappropriate for a landscape in which the student must become equipped to
define their own position and journey, and navigate new terrain – terrain that
perhaps their teachers have never experienced. In other words, learning must be
about the method, and feedback should therefore enable the student to construct
method as well as commenting on design as entity. Therefore, my next question
is do we make sufficient distinction in feedback between design as object and
design as process or method? Indeed, are we as educators constantly self-aware
of the impact of our own attitudes and approaches on the individual’s learning
and ability to position themselves on the journey that their learning represents?
Consider the trek – one of the first things that people normally do is huddle
around the map to discuss and agree an understanding of the undertaking. This is
the first feedback opportunity – a point of orientation and clarity, of
understanding the route, setting the compass and confirming direction and
destination, nurturing confidence. How well do we provide the equivalent
opportunity for students to enter into a dialogue with us at this initial point? How
well do students understand what is expected of them?
But there is a further, critically important role of this initial engagement – the
initiation of peer dialogue. Through collective discussion of the route, it becomes
a common journey or common learning experience, albeit ultimately managed in
a myriad of different ways. Student will fundamentally cover the same ground in
order to demonstrate achievement of learning outcomes, but they do so through
a diverse range of intellectual and mental processes in which individuals mentally
orientate themselves to the project, or learning activity, in different ways. This
orientation will be influenced by dialogue with tutors and peers.
So the kernel of the feedback process, the seed of the process, should be
established before the task is commenced. In design studio, we are familiar with
rich social dynamics and exchange, but there is much we can do to facilitate this
phenomenon, harnessing it to valuable effect, and propagating conversation
through processes other than mere physical proximity. Indeed, as many schools
are compelled to introduce hot-desking arrangements and more transient studio
configurations, we can no longer rely on the traditional hothouse of studio to
organically develop – instead it must be constructed.
The Compass
If the compass is the tool of navigation, what in the context of the metaphor, is
the learning equivalent? I would argue that it is represented by feedback, the
mechanism by which direction is gauged, the need for corrective action identified,
and by which the forward trajectory is determined. But feedback has a role for
both students and staff – there is a place for dialogue between tutor and student,
student and student, and tutor and tutor. These relationships depict the 3 strands
present in a rich feedback and feed-forward dialogue.
Tutor and Student
The results of my research clearly demonstrated the critical role that feedback
plays in learning, with student perceptions of the degree of academic challenge
closely corresponding to views on the effectiveness of feedback. The principal
aspects of feedback concerned regularity, timeliness and speed of response, and
specificity. The relationship of feedback to motivations levels and the generation
of student confidence was also noted, these aspects being key to developing the
student as an independent learner. The importance to students of grades was
evident, perhaps because they represent a definite indication of progress and
performance in a process that is unfamiliar, lacks clarity, and involves dimensions
of subjectivity. Of course, for the vast majority, grading is a recognisable
measure from their prior learning, and its importance to the student is thus
obvious. Yet, grading on its own is meaningless unless the student can equate
feedback commentary and dialogue to the quantified measure. Indeed, I would
argue that a further role of feedback is to enable the student to understand the
grading currency, and the value attributed to aspects of process and product. In
this way the grade is an addendum to the feedback rather than vice versa.
In the context of the indeterminacy of the design process, much has been written
about the challenge that different, sometimes contradictory tutor opinion,
presents to the student, and this too emerged in my research. Fundamentally,
this underlines the importance of articulating the tutor role, and of cultivating an
understanding of the learning process. However, instances where feedback was
considered negative in nature appeared to be of greater concern, particularly in
the review setting, an area that has undergone considerable scrutiny over the last
20 years. In his observations on ‘barriers to reflection’, Goatly (1989) asserted
that negativity, along with stressful forms of assessment, fatigue and low
confidence levels, discourages ‘deep’ learning. This returns us to the issue of the
approaches, attitudes, and behaviours that we adopt, and the need for our own
awareness of the impact that these potentially have.
Student to Student
Much has been written about what Thomas Dutton termed ‘power asymmetries’
in architecture education, and the fact that these can distort, lead and bias
dialogue. This has commonly been discussed within the context of the review,
although not exclusively, and I would argue that the nature of dialogue is pivotal
in relation to feedback. Whilst the observations about power by Dutton and
others relates to architecture, I have little doubt that the phenomenon has
broader relevance. A significant finding from my research related to the role of
the peer group as a forum for discussion and comparison, effectively removing
the negative potentials of the power asymmetries that can stifle dialogue, and
ultimately engender Schön’s counter-learner behaviours. This recalls the
importance of group dialogue on a regular basis, especially at the outset of a
project, as a mean of promoting and constructing this interactive support
Ultimately, where subjects are indeterminate, I would suggest that, in order to
gain an accurate understanding of the student’s position, we need to rethink our
interaction with them, generating feedback that creates a closer alignment
between the objective of the tutor / course, and the intentions and approach of
the individual student.
Whatever the specifics of the pedagogy employed, for the educational process to
be truly effective, students must be able to understand and recognise the criteria
against which their work is assessed. Fundamental to this is the development of
an understanding amongst the students that criteria are open to debate,
challenge, and scrutiny. Herein lies the true value of studio in that it represents a
community of individuals who broadly share similar interests and motivations,
and who jointly develop an understanding of the criteria and the broader
educational process through their shared experience. Such an understanding
relies on the existence of open, constructive dialogue.
Critical to effective feedback is the engagement of the student in the process. A
student must actively contribute to the feedback process in order to progress the
journey, in other words the process must be a two way process, albeit one that is
ultimately regulated by the tutor. It is critical that the student engages with the
feedback in order to acquire the ability to constructively respond to it. Feedback
involves gaining an understanding of the student’s thinking, ideas and intentions,
aligning tutor expectations with student thinking / direction through dialogue.
Therefore students are a map as well, lending importance to the notion of group
Tutor to Tutor
In the course of an extended, indeterminate project, such as in design, it is
necessary for tutors to interact to evaluate progress across the cohort, compare
experience and opinion, such conversations having an important in ensuring
consistency of feedback and feed forward. Staff reflection is instrumental in most
effectively facilitating the student’s plotting of the path forward. It allows for
confirmation of purpose, discussion as to how to ‘keep the party together’ and to
ensure that everyone is accounted for. It is also an opportunity to identify the
need for different levels of support for individuals or groups of individuals.
Conversations should reflect on the student journey so far as well as looking
where they need to go (a reiteration of destination), including pointers towards
the next steps – feedback provides the opportunity to re-group and consider the
way forward based on current position. But it must be focused to facilitate
student action. Where feedback is too generic, too broad, the student has to work
very hard to apply it to their individual context, risking the potential for
disengagement. We need only reflect on our own annual monitoring processes as
part of our respective QA regimes to understand the importance of a clear
definition of the context within which feedback is couched. Where student
comments are unclear or imprecise, we struggle to interpret them meaningfully.
Navigating the Path
If feedback or feed forward is too directive, prescribing a particular route,
students tend to follow in an uncritical and unquestioning way, or alternatively
dismiss the guidance in a reactionary even rebellious manner.
As student ability increases, so does capability to navigate the terrain in
increasingly independent ways. Ability to interpret information provided, interpret
and respond to guidance, and engage in dialogue in increasingly equal terms is
The clarity of the destination is often similarly enhanced through having engaged
in a number of cycles of an iterative process, but so too are skills in reflection,
critical evaluation, relating personal position to goal, learning outcomes and
assessment criteria. Triangulation necessarily involves reflection on progress with
respect to personal objectives and individual creative ideas.
Reflection – the ‘learning by doing’ of studio – involves the ability to close loop of
Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Processes of reflective observation and active
experimentation describe a process of self evaluation or assessment, assisted by
input from tutors. Reflection is essential as a skill that enables tutor feedback to
be understood in the specific context of an individual’s work.
On reaching the destination, the student is encouraged to reflect on their own
journey – ultimately a process of self-feeding back. Discourse on completion of
the task enables reflection back over the route travelled, as well, perhaps, as
giving a glimpse of the bigger panorama of what lies ahead. Learning diaries and
reflective logs can be highly effective tools in encouraging such skills, and as a
means of promoting critical evaluation.
Finally, and at risk of flogging the analogy to death, there is the need to celebrate
achievement of the goal, for this too conveys a message that constitutes a form
of feedback. The design process is founded on processes of reflection, such as
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle or Shaffer’s Learning Cycles. As Donald Schön
identified, this occurs ‘on’ and ‘in’ action. The facilitation of reflection, involving
bringing tacit learning and knowledge to the consciousness of students and, in
doing so, making the design process adopted explicit, is fundamental to effective
learning in architecture. With respect to this as a principle, there is little dispute
of Schön’s analysis of the learning process. However, when the student
comments are viewed through the prism of Goatly’s barriers to reflection, it
becomes apparent that the actions of tutors can work in opposition to the very
phenomena that Schön advocated as models for learning in many fields.
In the course of my study, issues of workload and available time, and confidence
and motivation, represented the salient factors governing capacity for effective
reflection. Indeed, Goatly’s observations on barriers to reflection map directly
onto those of the students surveyed. Of particular note, the management of
workload volume, and hence pressure on the student, is a factor residing wholly
within the control of tutors (even though the time management skills of the
student play a role in undertaking the prescribed projects).
The issue of confidence and personal motivation was a recurring theme
throughout the survey, and it was shown how levels fluctuated as uncertainty
(relating to purpose, tutor expectation, etc) increased or diminished over time.
The cultivation of confidence through clarity of purpose and the establishment of
a dialogue that engages the individual can therefore be said to lie at the heart of
an effective feedback mechanism.
Evidence also suggested that greater consideration of the time taken for
reflection on action is required, and it is proposed that reflective practice could be
enhanced by the integration of exercises that explicitly require evaluation of the
processes adopted in design, and the strategies, directions, and decisions
contained within – in other words self reflection as an internalised form of
feedback. Ultimately, the capacity of students to reflect on their work is also
contingent on their understanding of the underpinning learning objectives. This
reinforces the need for absolute clarity amongst the tutor team, and in the way in
which the learning process is communicated by staff, consistently and regularly.
Reflection on design decisions made during a project is not sufficient. Rather
tutors require to encourage deeper reflection, focusing the student on their
individual methodology, the assimilation of diverse factors in the decision-making
process, and on the formulation of sound and robust judgements. It is contended
that the magnitude of change encapsulated in this shift in emphasis is very
significant indeed, representing a major challenge for many. It can been seen
that conflicting guidance and behaviour can generate confusion, reinforcing the
importance not just of understanding at an individual level, but of the cohesive
collective action of tutor teams.
I have described a process of learning centred on consideration of feedback, with
a defined destination and set of stage posts applies at many levels, be that
project, module, or year of a course.
If our pedagogies are truly facilitative in nature, encouraging the development of
individual processes through carefully mapped journeys and ongoing dialogue,
then the student should be able to use tutors as facilitators of individual thinking
rather than as directors. This involves the recasting of the tutor role – indeed
much of what I have described suggests a modified position from that
traditionally adopted by the tutor. It also suggests the benefit of the true
integration of the student in feedback processes and the process of dialogue.
Dr David McClean
The Robert Gordon University