Signature feedback practices and disciplinary feedback processes

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When an article comes out in print, readers see the final product but cannot readily appreciate the travails and decision-making during the process. In this blog post, I want to share some of the challenges that we experienced in the development of our new article in Teaching in Higher Education on signature feedback practices.

The research emanates from a project supported by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong under its competitive General Research Fund. We obtained the grant at the second attempt with a remit to analyze feedback practices in four different applied disciplines. Our team included Jessica To as a Co-I, and two student helpers (the third and fourth authors).

We started data collection in the faculty of architecture in January 2018, primarily because I was optimistic that design studios were a potentially fruitful site for feedback interactions. I had conducted observations and interviews in architecture in a previous project and was optimistic that the teachers would welcome us to observe and participate, and this was indeed the case.

I knew very little, however, about how feedback might be enacted in the engineering discipline. In October 2018 we started collecting staff and student views of feedback in the engineering faculty. We also wanted to see how feedback was enacted in authentic pedagogic situations. I had interviewed a talented civil engineering teacher in previous research and he invited our team to join a specific ‘feedback session’ where he gave a group of third-year students advice on a draft assignment. We collected student views of this feedback episode and our undergraduate co-authors studying education, Connie and Jonathan, were particularly helpful in documenting the views of their engineering counterparts.

At the same time, Jessica and I were collecting data from colleagues in education, and later in medicine. One of the challenges was that data collection was rarely uniform despite our best intentions to be rigorous. Opportunities arose in some disciplines, whilst dead-ends occurred in others. And then social unrest in Hong Kong and COVID-19 made data collection even more difficult.

I always believe that writing is a process of thinking, so early in 2019 I started to draft and re-draft the beginnings of a paper. From the outset Lee Shulman’s concept of signature pedagogies seemed highly salient, and the design studio seemed to involve characteristic ways of managing feedback embedded within crits. We thought of these as ‘signature feedback practices’ and upon googling this term in 2019 found only a couple of brief references in a Dai Hounsell slide-deck from 2011 and in my 2015 book, Excellence in University Assessment. The concept seemed to need definition and exemplification.

Some disciplines in our sample seemed to evidence signature feedback practices, whereas others appeared to involve both generic and disciplinary feedback processes. This presented a challenge for the development of a coherent journal article. I was also mindful of the need for depth and focus, and worried that it would be difficult to cover four different disciplines adequately in a single paper. I was taken by the idea of comparing and contrasting architecture with engineering as particular sites for different kinds of feedback exchanges.

In preparing the article for first submission, I wondered if I could preserve more space for theory and data by omitting a full-blown research method section and merely including a short description of data collection in the introduction. My wise co-author Jessica To advised me against this non-traditional course, but it had worked for me in one of my favorite papers so I proceeded undaunted.

The first two submissions focused on architecture and engineering, and were submitted to Studies in Higher Education, and then Higher Education. Reviewers for these journals found plenty to like and dislike in the manuscript, and these days mixed reviews generally lead to rejection. Eventually I saw the light and accepted that Jessica’s reasoning was sensible and that a traditional journal article format of introduction; literature review; method; findings; discussion; and conclusion is the tried-and-tested mode of presentation for sound reasons. This necessitated coverage of all four of the disciplines we researched, and we strived to offer as much detail as we could within length restrictions.

It is sometimes said that with each iteration, a paper should get better. Despite the long struggle, I feel happy and somewhat relieved to see a solid version of the paper finally in print. Let readers be the judge of the final product and I hope it provides food for thought on the implementation of feedback practices in different disciplines. My supposition is that signature feedback practices might be identifiable in some disciplines but not in others. Possibilities for further exploration beckon.

David Carless (University of Hong Kong)

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