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The value of assignment feedback (and how to extract it)

 First blog of the year.  Although, let's be honest I have been somewhat lacking in blogging commitment over the last few months - something for which I am sure you have been extremely grateful.

Of course the stimulus to start up again is - as is so often the case - marking.  When faced with a seemingly insurmountable pile of work, frankly any kind of displacement activity will do.

There is another motivation though.  One of the reasons marking work can be such an arduous activity is that a great deal of effort tends to be exerted into finding the best way to provide summative feedback to students.  The feedback on essays has to serve three main functions:

1)   Justifying the grade to students: A grade should never be arbitrary. Often a marker might spend quite a lot of time determining what the most accurate grade is - distinguishing carefully down to the last %. The feedback is, in one sense, a record of that decision-making process and evidence of the reason why the work has achieved (say) 58% rather than 62%. At the very least, feedback should try and help students understand why the grade is within a certain class (i.e. why it is a 2.2, or why it is a 1st).

2) Justifying the grade to moderators: As I have described in an earlier blog, once a piece of work has been marked it is then pitched over to a ‘moderator’ whose job it is to verify that the grade is fair and accurate. Even after that process, the work might end up part of a sample of scripts which are reviewed by an ‘external examiner’ in another institution. The marker therefore needs to ensure that the feedback justifies the grade clearly for these other academics. Often the first marker will also be the person who has taught or led on the module, which means they are often in a key position for knowing exactly what the students have been asked to do, and what the expectations are from them. These expectations may inform the grade, and the feedback needs to ensure that moderators and external examiners can clearly understand as much as possible the whole rationale for the grades given.

3) Providing guidance for students on how to improve work in the future - how to build on the strengths they have demonstrated, and how to improve weaker areas.

It is no easy task to fulfil all of these expectations of feedback when you have only a limited amount of time to write it. And it may therefore cause lecturers some distress when they read that students rarely end up reading it - and even more rarely making any use of it. According to a study reprinted by Faculty Focus, feedback makes little or no difference to performance in nearly 67% of students.

For 17% of students, performance following feedback actually goes down.

Not surprising given the results of another study, which suggested that “39 percent of the students indicated they spent five minutes or less reading the feedback. A total of 81 percent spent 15 minutes or less reading feedback”.

I suspect these figures are a trifle optimistic - not because I am suggesting that students are at fault, but because the mechanism of feedback is fundamentally flawed. It is entirely natural for students to question the value of reading about how they could have done better on an essay which they have already submitted. It is a bit like being stuck in a traffic jam, and somebody helpfully suggesting that perhaps you should have gone another way: The advice comes too late to help you reach your destination any more efficiently, and any more generic advice you might be able to extrapolate about consideration of alternative routes when going on another journey is of limited value.

I believe that students will be more interested in advice which relates to the journey they are presently undertaking, and are therefore bound to be less interested in advice relating to a journey they have (at least to a large extent) already completed.

What is the solution to this?

Well, there certainly is value in continually questioning the pedagogical methods involved in feedback provision which, as the short article on Faculty Focus suggests, is “another example of teaching by telling—of expecting students to learn by listening, as opposed to learning by discovering and doing”. An alternative model is not going to emerge overnight though - and it is difficult to imagine a workable system where feedback is provided prior to final submission.

In the meantime, perhaps the key is to try and provide clearer guidance to students on how they can get the most value from feedback. Having trawled through a number of University sites providing guidance on feedback, it is interesting to note how many of them focus on formative feedback provided through various mechanisms during the semester - rather than on summative feedback provided at the end. I did, though, find a couple of outstanding exceptions.

UWE offer some succinct, but excellent advice. “Make sure you understand feedback” is a point which may sound simple, but is far too often overlooked. They suggest that a good think to do would be to “make a list of any comments or terms that you don’t really understand or don’t know what to do about and check these with the marker”.

In terms of development, they suggest as well that students could collate all of their feedback from the previous semester and draw up a list of the following:

What am I doing well?
What am I doing not so well?
What do I need to work on?
How am I going to improve?

Having done this, they can set “realistic targets for what you need to work on”. Formalising these targets on a Personal Development Plan, or sharing them with a Personal Tutor or a peer group would add additional structure and motivation for actively doing something about them in the future.

The University of Tasmania provide an excellent page of advice, emphasising that each assignment submitted is not the end-point of a learning process, but small stage in a bigger process. “It’s important”, they say “that you learn from your assignments and gradually build up knowledge, skills and expertise in your subject areas”.

They refer, as well, to the fact that feedback is usually a regulatory entitlement - and that students therefore have a right to valuable feedback. If a student cannot gain anything of value from feedback provided, then they have every right to “contact your unit coordinator or tutor and ask them for clarification and/or ask how you can improve your performance”.

Some excellent reflective questions are provided - and if I had my way all students would be going through these questions after each assignment, as I am convinced they may often help students understand their grade better than any feedback:

Time Management
  • Have I been using my time wisely during the first part of the Semester?
  • Did I spend enough time on this assignment?
  • Have I been putting in my 10 hours per week per unit?
  • Do I really know how to manage my time for study and all my other commitments?

Academic issues
  • Have I done what the assignment guidelines asked me to do?
  • Have I completed all aspects of the assignment?
  • Is what I have written relevant to the requirements of the assignment?
  • Have I fully understood what I was expected to do?
  • Have I shown evidence of  reading widely in the relevant area?
  • Does the rubric help me to understand what I have done well and what I could have done better?
  • Do I understand the feedback and comments from the tutor or lecturer?

  • Are my grammar, punctuation and written expression up to the standard expected at tertiary level?
  • Are my ideas clearly expressed, logical and ordered?
  • What references have I used to support my ideas? Are they correctly listed at the end and correctly cited in the text of the assignment?
  • Did I keep to the word limit?
  • Was my assignment presented as required in the Unit Outline?  Was it presented on time?
  • Once you have reflected on these questions, you can decide who to approach to get support, advice or feedback

Feedback will always be a problematic issue - but with the right guidance and a pro-active approach from students, it can still lead to huge improvements in grades and performance.

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