Feedback Literacy: A Framework for Educators

A Five-Step Framework to Develop Key Competencies

With research roots in the teacher-student relationship, feedback literacy is a concept to describe the general capacity to understand and effectively use feedback elements and processes.

Paul Sutton introduced the term in a 2012 paper positing the need for students to become feedback literate, framing this type of feedback literacy as a natural extension of Lea & Street’s (1998) Academic Literacies approach. The concept was further expanded and popularized by Carless and Boud (2018), who defined student feedback literacy as the “understandings, capacities and dispositions needed” for students to maximize the benefits they receive from feedback processes. From there, Carless & Winston (2020) brought the idea of teacher feedback literacy into the world, and Boud & Dawson (2021) developed it into the Teacher Feedback Literacy Competency Framework.

Feedback Literacy Evolution

We now arrive at a fascinating juncture in the thinking around feedback literacy. Thanks in part to the research that has introduced and evolved our understanding of feedback literacy, the general concept of feedback in higher education has positively shifted from what educators give learners to a more dynamic interplay, a kind of feedback arena where educators and learners both meet and have critical roles to play.

“If we educators are to build the feedback literacy of our students, we must be in the arena with them.”

Still, as in the world of management, a feedback hierarchy exists. In management, this is evident in the countless general advice articles that, through language like “make eye contact” and “say thank you and smile,” condescendingly center the feedback receiver as merely a passive participant. Though the contrast is less sharp, the thinking around feedback literacy in higher education contains a similar dynamic; educators are positioned as omniscient sages expected to pass down feedback literacy wisdom to their students.

In the last few years, however, there has been a positive shift in the research toward that which can help educators develop as feedback-literate teachers. Two helpful frameworks have emerged from this research: the Authentic Feedback Framework by Dawson, Carless, and Lee (2020) and the previously mentioned Teacher Feedback Literacy Competency Framework by Boud & Dawson (2021). The former can be used as a guide to help educators focus on the five key dimensions (realism, cognitive challenge, affective challenge, evaluative judgment, and feedback enactment) to create in-class feedback experiences that “…resemble the feedback practices of the discipline, profession or workplace.” The latter details 19 competencies that the feedback literate teachers in the study leveraged to plan, design, and manage various feedback dynamics – from “Apportions feedback resources to most effect” to “Poses questions that open students to new ways of thinking about their work and other ways of doing it.”

Both frameworks made vital contributions that will improve how educators plan and deliver lessons that build student feedback literacy. And they can certainly help shore up the gaps Janice Orrell discovered between the feedback rhetoric of educators and the actual practice. But Orrell opens that paper by stating, “Feedback on performance is arguably the cornerstone of all learning, both formal and informal.” If indeed this is true – or, if not, if feedback is to reach cornerstone status – all participants in the feedback relationship must see themselves not only as developing individuals in roles but also as, more fundamentally, developing individuals.

The UNITE Educator Feedback Literacy Framework

I’m proposing a framework called UNITE that fuses parts of these two frameworks while expanding the lens to include the educator’s individual feedback literacy development.

A pyramid showing that UNITE Educator Feedback Literacy Framework. The 5 parts, beginning at the base of the pyramid and working up, are: 1 - Undertake Intra- and Inter-Personal Development. 2 - Nurture Feedback-Seeking Behavior. 3 - Identify, Design, and Plan Feedback Experiences. 4 - Teach the Feedback Basics and Facilitate Experiences. 5 - Encourage Colleagues to Adopt Feedback Practices

The development of this framework is in line with Boud & Dawson (2021), who wrote of their framework, “We do not claim this to be a comprehensive framework, but a generative one,” and with Nieminen & Carless (2022), who wrote about “…how research has invented feedback literacy as a way of reframing feedback processes through the idea of individual skill development.”

The UNITE Educator Feedback Literacy Framework is a continuous cycle. Still, it begins on the inside with inner and professional development, moves to the classroom by focusing on planning and teaching, and ends on the outside through activities that promote the feedback development of colleagues. Below, we’ll briefly explore each part of the five-step framework.

Undertake Intra- and Inter-Personal Development

Suppose we define feedback literacy as a concept to describe the general capacity to understand and effectively use feedback elements and processes. In that case, the vital roles of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills become clear because, although we may intellectually understand the feedback basics, effectively using them demands awareness of our inner experience and how we interact with others. Think about the default habits and inner narratives we may create around feedback. Have you ever immediately held a negative view, even if for a moment, about someone who was giving you feedback? Intrapersonal development can allow you to get to the root of why this is and make more conscious and hopefully better decisions. In this sense, it is perhaps the fundamental layer to developing our feedback literacy.

And intrapersonal development can extend into interpersonal development because if we’ve built the capacity to listen to ourselves, we’ll at least have the baseline skills to practice active listening with others. We may have just created our greatest syllabus, but if we aren’t continuously understanding and developing our basic communication skills, we’ll struggle to model what it means to be feedback literate.

“All participants in the feedback relationship must see themselves not only as developing individuals in roles but also as, more fundamentally, developing individuals.”

In my experience, daily meditation and weekly therapy sessions allow me to understand my inner world better. Additionally, while teaching at Penn State University, I built a habit of journaling immediately after each class to capture how I felt during class, how my mood and energies shifted, and what worked or didn’t.

On the interpersonal front, I’m reminded of an assignment when I was an Executive MBA student that involved studying films of ourselves and others based on presentations and facilitated conversations. Having a mirror into my performance, coupled with studying (not just watching) the verbal and nonverbal cues of others, allowed me to address several interpersonal weaknesses. As educators, we can benefit from a similar approach.

Nurture Feedback-Seeking Behavior

If we educators are to build the feedback literacy of our students, we must be in the arena with them. And being in the arena means nurturing our feedback-seeking behavior. We’ve known since Susan Ashford and L. L. Cummings introduced feedback-seeking behavior in 1983 that it can profoundly benefit an individual’s growth. Feedback-seeking behavior is about taking an active role in receiving the feedback you need. This can come in various forms, including end-of-term surveys, getting continuous feedback, and proactively asking colleagues to attend a class to provide feedback.

If it’s been a while since you’ve flexed your feedback-seeking behavior muscles, you might have forgotten how hard it can be to ask for and receive the helpful feedback you need. This is especially true because receiving feedback is only the first step in processing feedback, which is about deciding what to make of it and how (or if) to use it.

To best leverage the feedback I collect, I’ve found it helpful to organize feedback topically. For example, you may want to group feedback you receive about your teaching style separately from feedback related to course content. The goal is to nurture your feedback-seeking behavior, that is, to “feed it” by building it into a habit and to “protect it” by ensuring you either don’t become complacent or start collecting it simply for the sake of rather than because you are benefitting from it.

Identify, Design, and Plan Feedback Experiences

Most educators I’ve worked with would agree that every classroom hour demands at least that much time in preparation. In this regard, I often visualize the iceberg analogy, with a small part of the iceberg (teaching) breaking the surface and most of the iceberg (planning) under the surface. As this relates to my experience with feedback literacy, I’ve had to reframe my feedback mentality from thinking it was only point-to-point (something I’d deliver after each assignment) to realizing it is a complex discipline worth integrating into most areas of my lesson plan. The “Aha!” moment for me was when I read about an experiment in which “…improvement in their [students’] writing is actually higher when they focus on assessing peers’ work rather than receiving feedback on their own.” After reading that, I realized that I had placed perhaps too much emphasis on the importance of my direct feedback to students.

In practice, this stage is about understanding that the feedback you provide students is just one small part of the many other feedback learning modalities (such as peer-to-peer feedback) you can integrate throughout your course. Boud & Dawson’s Teacher Feedback Literacy Competency Framework shines in this regard. I believe it is the most important framework for helping educators think through how to build feedback literacy into their curriculum. Many parts of this framework, which was built by studying 62 teachers across five universities, map to our Identify, Design, and Plan dimension, including:

  1. Uses inclusive feedback practices for all students
  2. Organizing feedback information generating sessions to minimize teachers’ repetitive work
  3. Designs activities so students can incorporate feedback responses into subsequent assignments
  4. Using feedback selectively where it can have most impact
  5. Invites students to show how they have utilized feedback information in their work.

Teach the Feedback Basics and Facilitate Experiences

Here is where the iceberg breaks the surface. Speaking from experience, the feedback activities I’ve been the most excited about haven’t necessarily been the most effective. On the other hand, some assignments, such as a shared Miro board where students worked in groups, unintentionally transformed into profound feedback experiences due to the transparency students had in seeing their peers’ work.

At this stage, it’s essential to focus first on how you will teach the feedback basics (for our purpose, the basics can include giving feedback, receiving feedback, and processing feedback). While there are many books about feedback, most include assumptions that we all know how to give and receive feedback well. You can break through these assumptions by directly teaching the feedback basics early in the semester to ensure all students are on the same page. Be sure to leave plenty of room for questions and ensure students understand the concept of psychological safety, as this will be critical for future feedback activities.

The next step is to leverage the Authentic Feedback Framework of Dawson, Carless, and Lee. Here are the five dimensions of the framework:

  1. Realism: to what extent do learners engage in the tasks and the social and physical contexts of feedback in the discipline or profession
  2. Cognitive challenge: to what extent does feedback engage learners in higher-order thinking
  3. Affective challenge: to what extent do learners regulate and make productive use of their emotions
  4. Evaluative judgment: to what extent do learners make judgments about the quality of their own work and the work of others
  5. Feedback enactment: to what extent do learners respond to feedback as a professional would in the discipline or profession

Encourage Colleagues to Adopt Feedback Practices

At this stage, feedback-literate educators may naturally become feedback ambassadors outside the classroom. If not, it’s worth considering how to develop in this regard because bringing others into the fold can be the feedback literacy rising tide that lifts all boats. Courses here and there that embrace feedback literacy can make a tremendous difference, but it’s not until educators begin to work together that a healthy feedback culture can emerge.

As one of the 19 components of the Teacher Feedback Literacy Competency Framework, Boud & Dawson found that feedback-literate educators helped develop or coordinate feedback initiatives with colleagues. They state, “This included working with teams of many feedback information providers so that there was a consistent feedback experience for students; sharing successful feedback practices with colleagues; and initiating conversations with colleagues about important feedback issues.”

Lastly, we educators know that teaching is a profound way to learn. In this sense, educating our fellow educators can be another way to improve our feedback literacy.

Feedback Literacy for All

As the concept of feedback literacy moves out of academic journals and into classrooms, educators actively working to develop their own literacy will be able to model it best for their students. Such modeling will arise from the quiet and often challenging work described in the U, N, and I stages of the UNITE Educator Feedback Literacy Framework, where the educator will develop their intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, seek the feedback they need to improve, and weave components of feedback literacy throughout their curriculum. From there, educators will have the foundation they need to develop the feedback literacy of their students and, eventually, help their department (and beyond) become a continuously learning feedback culture.


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