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What is feedback?

Feedback is an essential part of education and training programmes. It helps learners to maximise their potential at different stages of education or training, raises their awareness of strengths and areas for improvement, and identifies actions to be taken to improve performance. It can be directive, which informs the learner of the aspects of performance that require correction, or facilitative, which helps the learner develop their practice.

Feedback may be written, verbal or numerical. To maximise learning, feedback should be specific to the task yet help the learner to make connections to related tasks or contexts. It can be informal (for example in day-to-day encounters between teachers and learners, between peers or colleagues, or from patients) or formal (e.g. as part of summative written or clinical assessment). The somewhat artificial distinction between summative and formative (developmental) feedback has been unhelpful and we now see that (whilst it is necessary to hold formal assessment and feedback events) good feedback is part of the overall dialogue or interaction between teacher and learner and not simply a one-way communication. Giving structured, formal feedback can help reinforce, modify and improve behaviours although feedback can also have negative, unintended consequences if it is not given or received in a safe and constructive way.  Although feedback is necessarily about observed performance, good feedback is forward-facing (‘feeding forward’), helping the learner identify new goals, improvements or actions.

If we don't give any feedback, what is the learner gaining, or indeed, assuming?

They may think that everything is OK and that there are no areas for improvement. Learners value feedback, especially when it is given by someone credible who they respect as a role model or for their specific knowledge, behaviours or clinical competence. Failing to give feedback sends a non-verbal communication in itself and can lead to mixed messages and false assessment by the learner of their own abilities, as well as a lack of trust in the teacher or clinician.

For example, a physiotherapy student gets to the end of their last final year placement in which one of the overarching learning outcomes is to show clinical leadership, but when it comes to completing the end of placement assessment, the supervising physiotherapist comments that they can’t say whether this has been achieved. Understandably, the student is upset and asks why she wasn’t given feedback before about this as she feels she has shown good leadership for her stage of education, citing a number of examples. What would you do if you were the team leader?

Most teachers already give feedback to learners. This module offers some suggestions on how you can improve the feedback you give so that you are better able to help motivate and develop learners’ knowledge, skills and behaviours.

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