Role of feedback in learning and teaching
I started my teaching career in 1998, while still doing my degree at University. For the last 7.5 years I have been teaching at the Manchester College. I always recognised feedback as one of the most fundamental parts of the learning and teaching process. However, PGCAP course highlighted several aspects and facts about feedback, which turned out to be surprising for me, and maybe even shocking to some extent. In this post, I decided to deepen my knowledge in those questions.
1. Feedback in Assessment
I have known the difference between formative and summative assessments since I started teaching. Broadly speaking, by summative assessment we understand assessment “that is used to signify competence or that contributes to a student’s grade in a course, module, level or degree” (O’Farrell, 2013, p. 5). By formative assessment, on the other hand, we understand assessment, which is “used to provide feedback to the student on their learning” (O’Farrell, 2013, p. 5). Formative assessment “provides the student with advice on how to maintain and improve their progress” (O’Farrell, 2013, p. 5).
Until very recently, I have never seriously thought of the difference between feedback on formative and summative assessments. In the University Assessment Handbook (UoS, 2012, p. 23) it is stated that “feedback should be part of continuous guided learning and an integral part of the learning experience, rather than a one-off event after assessment”. However, nowadays students seem to spend less and less effort doing work that can be formatively assessed by their tutor(s) as such on-going work does not always count towards final grade that students are going to get for their module or programme. However, what is important about such formative feedback is that it supports learners in their learning and better prepares them for summative assessment at later stages in the course. Unfortunately, not all learners understand this and it is our role, as module tutors and convenors, to raise our learners’ understanding and awareness of usefulness of continuous formative feedback provided as part of learning experiences.
From my personal experience from my first year at University, I remember thoroughly doing every single piece of class task or home work – and no one ever questioned if that counted towards the grade or not. There were hundreds of marks received that did not affect anything – and no one ever questioned why we needed to do those. Six years later I was completing my MSc, and suddenly realised that my classmates are not doing regular homework any more. However, I did not think in details about that fact back then. When I moved to the UK, the picture was very similar. I give students homework and some of them thoroughly complete it. However, there are more and more students who immediately ask if it counts towards the final grade. After my negative reply, I can see that some of them even stop writing the task. It appears to me that we are facing two problems here. Firstly, Smith & Gorard’s (2005) “they don’t give us our marks” phenomena, where students want to see familiar (i.e. those that make immediate sense to them) means of assessment and measurement (i.e. grades) of their work as evidence of their progress, rather than comments, which do not necessarily make immediate sense to them (and we – tutors – are so enthusiastically trying to provide comments to the students as part of formative assessment). Secondly, students want their marks / comments to count towards their final grade. In other words, they want some kind of appreciation of their hard work and this appreciation should be realised, from the students’ perspective, by means of a cumulative grade that they receive at the end of course based on their performance during the course. If we do not give them these stimuli – they lose interest (ultimately, putting in such a way no one else but themselves in a disadvantageous position).
What happens next is that students submit their final piece of assessment, it is graded and grade is given back to students, together with feedback. Some of students will not be happy with the grade they received. Could they have done better? Could they have done something differently to get better mark they think they deserve? Most likely, yes; if, of course, they have known about it. That is where feedback on formative assessments would be useful. However, because students often see their end of module work as final destination they do not see reason for acting on feedback on their work, as nothing can be changed at this stage anyway. What we can probably do here is provide feedback on students’ drafts while they study the module so that they can act upon their weak or problematic areas before they submit their final piece of work. But here we are coming back again to the two dilemmas that I have outlined above (non/contribution of feedback/grades to the final mark and students’ un/willingness to understand and interpret comments).
While feedback on formative assessment helps to improve the final submission and guide students through the unit, not all students use that opportunity. Especially this is important to one of the courses I teach on, HND in Computing. Each module consists of a single piece of assessment, which is course work. There are no tests, no exams, and no other assessments. Just pass the course work – and you passed the module. Students know it very well, and that is why they often choose to overlook homework I give. It is not possible to change course outline so that homework is included into the final mark – it is just the final course work, full stop. I found quite an effective way to gently encourage them to do homework: play on their consciousness. Demonstrate respect and emphasise I recognise that they are adults. In most cases, it helps (although not for all students).
For this course, the only way to provide useful feedback that can be used to improve their work is via interim feedback (i.e. by commenting on drafts of students’ home- and in-class work). I was the first person in our department who said to students that they are not limited in number of interim submissions. I promised to have a look at the work, give indicative grade, provide general feedback, and advise how to improve. My proposal of this change has been guided by one of the statements from The QAA Code of Practice on Assessment (2006), namely that “Institutions [should] provide appropriate and timely feedback to students on assessed work in a way that promotes learning and facilitates improvement…” (UoS, 2012, p. 22). Initially, students were extremely enthusiastic about this opportunity. However, by the end of the module, I received only one interim submission from the whole class, and only on one occasion. Everyone else just submitted work as usual, at the end. That was the first time I saw those works. Some of them missed out on key points from the compulsory learning outcomes and therefore were referred. All of those could have been fixed in under an hour, should I have seen that work any time before the final submission. It is stated in the University Assessment Handbook (UoS, 2012, p. 22) that “Detailed feedback that is informative and constructive, explicitly linked to the assessment criteria and provides some indication of a route to improvement [can] directly support students’ learning and motivation”. This seems to have been well recognised by the tutors, including myself, but not by the students. Well, at least not at the time when such an opportunity was provided to them. I think that because students have not really had any previous experiences of this kind of tutor-student co-operation (either in this or in other modules), they felt somewhat cautious about it and even though initially have reacted positively and enthusiastically to such an innovation, felt less ready to implement it in reality.
Later, my experiment was recognised by our department as a good practice, and it was decided to use it extensively. All our tutors started using this approach, and we remind students constantly about this opportunity. Students use it more and more, and even external examining body for one of our courses noticed it as an example of good practice. Otherwise, a module that has the only summative assessment can be seen as the module without useful feedback.
Others claim that feedback on the final piece of work can be used to improve in future modules. In theory – yes, but how many students actually bother reading (or even getting!) this feedback in real life? Can we change this? Can we do something to get them interested in getting that feedback? Or should we just accept it as it is and concentrate on other things? This leads us to think about ways in which programmes are – or should be – designed, to facilitate learners’ engagement with learning across modules.
2. Providing Feedback
Another interesting point for me was the way in which feedback is given. While giving feedback on formative assessment, or even interim feedback on a summative, – I always give advice on how to improve (in addition to general comments). Naturally (i.e. drawing on my experiences and understandings as a student), I assumed that every student wants to produce a piece of work of an outstanding quality. So I used to comment on everything that might be improved. And I have never thought there might be a serious problem with such approach. Apparently, some students may become scared of the amount of feedback given to them and can simply switch off and lose interest in their work. Others may not understand some aspects of the feedback. And yet others may interpret positive feedback provided in a red pen as negative evidence and this may discourage them to continue improving their work.
How can these issues be addressed? In the University Assessment Handbook (UoS, 2012, p. 23), with a reference to http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/p23/NUS.pdf, it is stated that “feedback should be written in plain language so it can be easily understood by all students, enabling them to engage with it and support future learning”. I think that this is the point that I am going to take on board and construct my feedback in such a way so that (a) it states clearly to the student what has been done well and what still needs to be improved, (b) it is provided in a positive and supportive way, and (c) it makes sense not just to me as a tutor, but also, and most importantly, to the student who receives it and who is supposed to benefit from it.
Another lesson that I have learnt from assessing my students and from providing feedback to them is that I should always explicitly share marking criteria and scheme with students before I set assessment tasks to them. Doing this would allow me to ensure that all students clearly understand what is expected of them. It is stated in University Assessment Handbook (UoS, 2012, pp. 23-24) that “An example of good preparation is sharing the marking criteria and scheme with the students so that they understand what they are being asked to do and demonstrate, and so that they have the opportunity to engage with the criteria while they are preparing their work: it is at this stage that discussing the assessment requirements with students can be particularly useful”.
Finally, I really like Bloxham & Boyd’s (2007) suggestion about a ‘questioning’ approach to feedback, where the authors suggest that tutors should provide feedback in the format of scaffolding questions to facilitate thinking and learning rather than in the format of simple communication of statements (UoS, 2012).
3. Assessment and Learning
However, it is also worth mentioning that a lot of students (and sometimes even teachers) often underestimate the value of assessment (Packard & Race, 2000). Here is my favourite example. I sometimes teach CSS and HTML. These technologies are used to design web sites. As a summative assessment for this unit, students have to produce a web site.
Teaching (class contact) for this unit lasts for about 12 weeks. Most of this time students spend learning very basic and general stuff: how internet works, how web pages are send over the internet, how they are handled by browsers, and so on. During classes, students only learn several of css-properties out of hundreds existing (plus the fundamental basics of the subject). Once they have learnt that, they are sent off to work on the assignment. During this time tutor is usually available to clarify tasks set out in the assignment, but is not available to help with a particular piece of code. Students are expected to learn a lot of codes themselves, and produce the final product.
The reason I structure and implement my teaching and assessment in exactly this way is as follows. Memorising properties of hundreds of css-properties is not the purpose of this unit per se (and it is impossible to memorise them anyway). In my unit I want my learners to learn not only the essentials of web design but also, and equally importantly, I want them to learn how to learn. I want them to be able to solve similar problems in future, but in situations where they won’t have exact solutions at hand and would have to use their problem-solving skills to get these solutions. My assessments prepare them for such real-life tasks.
Under these circumstances, students often only see class contact as learning, and treat the course work as pure assessment of their skills (often claiming that they have not learnt all those things which they are asked to do). In this case, they need to be reminded about the role of problem-solving skills for their future (rather than asking them to do exactly the same piece of code that they just learned in class). By this example I have demonstrated strong links that can exist between learning and assessment in the classroom and importance of such ‘assessment for learning’ experiences for one’s future professional career.
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Bloxham, S., & Boyd, P. (2007). Developing assessment in higher education: a practical guide. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
O’Farrell, C. (2013). Enhancing student learning through assessment: a toolkit approach. Retrieved from http://learningandteaching.dit.ie/documents/assessment_toolkit_v41f.pdf
Packard, N., & Race, P. (2000). 2000 tips for teachers. London: Kogan Page Limited.
Porter, A. (n.d.). The great NUS feedback amnesty. Retrieved from http://www.gees.ac.uk/planet/p23/NUS.pdf
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA). (2006). Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Documents/COP_AOS.pdf
Smith, E., & Gorard, S. (2005). “They don’t give us our marks”: the role of formative feedback
in student progress. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 12(1), 21–38.
University of Salford. (2012). University assessment handbook: a guide to assessment design, delivery and feedback.