Step Forward: Closing the feedback loop through learner-generated targets

Tyne Coast College

It's not about 'doing to' it's about doing with!This project details how merging partners, South Tyneside College and Tyne Metropolitan College, sought progressive approaches to prompt adult GCSE and Access students to make more effective use of feedback from teachers.  Staff hoped that this would lead to them setting their own short term targets and give learners more control over their learning. Participating staff from the colleges experimented with redesigning the feedback paperwork, and then evaluating the uses of feedback templates in different contexts (as homework or as classwork with tutorial support available).


Project group members agreed that within their college contexts, learners do not consistently act on their written feedback. The project aimed to enhance learners’ scholarly skills and prepare them more fully for employment or studying at a higher level.   Both partners were interested in effectively closing the feedback loop to create meaningful stretch targets for learners in the Maths and English context.  Since learners enrol with a variety of academic starting points, the project group expected that closing the feedback loop and guiding learners to meaningful, self-generated targets for maths and English would constitute a meaningful intervention.

Project Activities and Outputs

Initially, the project team members compared practices to identify common problems within their constituent organisations.  They then designed both staff and student surveys to clarify student experience and preferred feedback practices. Both project teams adopted an action research approach to planning, implementing then evaluating their experimental use of new feedback forms and approaches.  Tyne Met staff experimented with using feedback and feed-forward sheets with a group of Access Pathways to Higher Education (APHE) learners. APHE was targeted for intervention as exemplifying community learning (Sharp, 2011).   Following 55 survey responses to the existing feedback forms, in stage 2, Tyne Met staff then gave students feed forward forms with their assignment feedback from the tutor.  78% of the students found the feed forward form useful.

At South Tyneside College the project group focused on creating or amending feedback sheets so that adult learners were prompted to reflect on and the act on their feedback from teachers (see Appendix 1-3).  Initially, there was a focus on maths and English, then the potential for applying the feed forward system more widely across curriculum areas became apparent and the project group then focused on developing these feed forward templates across the whole College.  Staff then refined their approach further and experimented with feed forward forms being completed in class with the tutor as a resource. All students’ assignment work improved in this additional small-scale experiment.

Professional Learning

Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices.

Staff across both centres used the results of the initial survey to design feed forward forms which would encourage learners at all levels to set their own goals.  The action research approach enabled staff to revise their use of the forms with different learners and in different contexts.  As part of sharing this revised feed-forward approach with colleagues, in August 2017 feedforward templates were distributed to 74 staff members from across the Professional and Vocational College in South Tyneside. Foundation and Supported Learning refined, adapted and redesigned the feed forward forms to meet learner needs; for some learners, the feed forward system was designed to be simpler and highly visual (see appendix 1, figure 2).    A staff survey overwhelmingly appreciated the potential to focus on specific issues with learners using these forms which were seen as giving learners greater direction and control over their subsequent learning.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisational practices

The project demonstrated how staff on the project and across departments and institutions valued initiatives that had been shown to work within the institution.  The structured project meetings provided a framework for sustained development along the principles of the project, although logistics meant that the partners concentrated upon their individual programmes.  Access teaching staff valued the opportunity to work together across Colleges to investigate and reflect upon assessment, feedback and its implications for learners, as previously, they had only considered feedback in standardisation meetings following the assessment process, but this Step Up project gave staff a chance to make meaningful changes to feedback practices as the route to improving student performance in the summative assessments.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression.

Learners from across level two and three provision were given the feedback forms to complete during their GCSE English classes and Access Social Science classes. Examples are indicated in appendix 1 and 2. 100% of learners improved their grade or score after completing the feed forward forms.  Learners were observed synthesising material from comments in the margins of written work as well as the overall comments that appeared alongside the grade.

Across both colleges, 78% of the participants wrote that they found the feed-forward form useful as a prompt for goal-setting, for identifying areas of weakness, and for clarifying academic expectations.  However, 22% of participants indicated that feed-forward forms would not enable them to confidently improve; many felt they still needed further tutorial guidance.

Concluding Remarks

Learning from this project

  • Learners were most positive about feedback and feed-forward where the tutors had intervened to demonstrate how improvements could be achieved, and when this feedback was specific, directive, clear and manageable for individuals.
  • Learners were very negative about tutor comments which pointed to a weakness – e.g. inadequate proof-reading – followed by general reminders to apply themselves more diligently.
  • Learners benefit from time to work on their feedback in class, when feedback is given and tutors are available to provide clarification and additional direction. This enables them to better address the challenge of knowing what they must do and how they might do it.
  • Feedback and feed-forward forms make tutorial sessions more structured, focused and purposeful.
  • Learners benefit from getting feedback on their English skills both through annotation on their work and from the feedback sheet through theory and illustration.
  • Ongoing support is needed from tutors to ensure that feed-forward sheets become meaningful for individuals. When successfully used, positive students’ comments indicate their confidence about their academic ability and potential in the subject area, thus indicating it will contribute to establishing more positive mind-sets.
  • Practitioner researchers will be more willing to challenge research through engaging in research. (PS 8, 9)
  • One Access team surveyed learners and found that the majority (60%) responded and were overwhelmingly positive about their feedback experience. However the team were concerned that the 40% of non-respondents included those learners who were not achieving and most in need of help.  The team sensed that accepting this statistically positive endorsement as proof of ‘success’ would merely mask the issues.  Consequently, they arranged additional discussions with individuals whom they recognise are most in need of help.  This experience will produce practitioners who are consequently more critical readers of any published research which uses statistics to justify the success of different educational approaches.