Feedback in Service Learning

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By John Cannings

Why do students need feedback when they carry out service learning?

What are some of the best forms of feedback to give students?

The essence of service learning is that students gain new knowledge and skills from their experiences. Service Learning is a form of Experiential Learning

Experiential Education is based on theoretical work of the psychologist David Kolb, who explained this process as:

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38).

John Hattie has written several articles and books on the importance of feedback from teachers to students in helping them to learn. In this blog we are going to look at the role that feedback can play in helping students to learn from their experiences based on his work.  Feedback in service learning may come from a variety of sources e.g. the supervisor of the course, the person that supervises the student through their experience and from peers working alongside the students.

Hattie (2011) identifies three questions, which could apply to feedback about Service Learning. The first of these is  “Where am I going? This question is really to help students clarify their goals and to understand them.  If the students are given feedback as to what success might look like for the service they want to carry out. He has argued that this occurs best when the goals themselves are challenging. This is an important part of the initial stages of researching a potential service activity. E.g. an example of this is when students wanted to provide a service reading to old ladies in a blind home.  The feedback a supervisor gave them was that they needed to choose stories that were positive and not to last more then thirty minutes.

The second question, which was posed, was “How am I going?” This question is one that is normally posed by students who want some indication of their performance levels against a standard. It is important that students get feedback not only on their performance in a task but also on their reflections. Some students undertaking the IB’s CAS programme are expected to submit regular written reflections on CAS and it is essential that the students get some feedback on their reflections. This is really important for the students learning. In the IB Diploma CAS programme there are clearly stated learning outcomes and students need feedback that helps them to explain how they have met the learning outcomes.

The last question that is posed by Hattie is Where to Next? Feedback here is essential to students undertaking long term projects and can look at developing new targets appropriate to the student.  This also helps the student to develop their ability to self evaluate, a quality we want students to develop.

In addition to these three questions about Service Learning Hattie and Timberley (2007) identified what was considered to be four levels of feedback that can be given to students. These were:

  1. Task oriented feedback.  This relates to a specific task that a student has to perform. E.g. a student who is helping to cook food in a soup kitchen may be given specific instructions as to how to be better at using the correct ingredients when making a curry. It is the simplest form of feedback and is usually presented as correct or incorrect. While this type of feedback can help students to learn a skill, it is not a way of providing of feedback that enhances students understanding of why they have done something. Such feedback is most appropriate in oral form and would not, on its own be the most appropriate feedback on written reflection.
  2. Process oriented feedback. This is aimed at the processes that the student has had to follow to perform a task. E.g. here we might give students feedback on how to go about organising an event such as an open mike music night in a school. It would help them to see the steps they would need to take to communicate their wishes with school authorities and students. This type of feedback is very useful to the students as they are preparing for an event and it can be given effectively in a one to one conversation or specific written feedback.
  3. Self –regulation. This type of feedback is aimed at enhancing the students own monitoring of their learning processes. This feedback could be given in a formal interview with students where their reflections are being discussed and they have to reflect on what they have learnt. Such feedback could be invaluable in getting the student think about they are realising personal development goals or course standards. This type of feedback can help students engage further on a task and make them more receptive to accepting feedback.
  4. Self. This feedback is one commonly given to students e.g. you are doing a great job or well done! Many students expect this sort of feedback, however Hattie argues it does not enhance learning. He suggests “Feedback at the self level can interact negatively with attainment as it focuses more on the person than the proficiencies.”

In looking at feedback we give students it is important that we consider these three questions about feedback and also the level at we give feedback. A few pointers about the best type of feedback to give students:

  1. It must be personalised. When feedback is given to a group it is often ineffective, as students don’t think it is directed at them individually.

Personal face-to-face discussions provide the best forum for giving feedback

  • It needs to be related to goals for the task being carried out and course standards (e.g. CAS Learning Outcomes).  Written reflections need feedback that acknowledges how well the students have understood the task and met the course standards.
  • It needs to provide students with tools or framework to develop skills of self-evaluation.
  • It needs to provide a way for the student to move forward.


Hattie J.A.C, and Timperley H (2007) “The power of feedback”

The Review of Educational Research 77 (1) p81-112

Hattie J.A.C “Feedback in Schools” in Sutton, R, Hornsey M.J & Douglas K.M (Eds 2011) Feedback: The communication of praise, criticism and advice. Peter Lang Publishing, New York

Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall

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