May 20, 2009, by Teaching at Nottingham

Brenda Smith on assessment and feedback

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Brenda Smith: “In terms of the aims for the session, I really have three, and that’s to emphasise assessment for learning rather than of learning.

“The second aim is really to engage the active engagement of students in the whole process of assessment and feedback, and that’s from the sort of the very first time that they enter the institution, and I, hopefully will give you some practical hints and tips about how we might do that. And then also to encourage this feedback, as feed forward, because if it is to help students learn, we need to be giving them some advice, not just what they’ve got wrong, but how they can correct that and how they can apply it to future work.

“What the Burgess report said, and it is still ongoing, lead by Professor Bob Burgess from the University of Leicester, that the present system can’t capture achievement in some areas of interest to both students and employers, that the emphasis on the top two degrees, wrongly reinforced as an impression that the lower second or third degree is not an achievement.

“There’s a lot of information that employers would find useful that’s currently contained in the European diploma and the academic transcript that the current work that we’re looking at now is to develop this higher educational achievement report, which gives a much fuller picture of what a student can do and what experiences that student’s had.

“The way institutions calculate the degree award using different algorithms varies tremendously. So some institutions use percentages, some grades, some use twenty point scores, some institutions allow the number of modules to be dropped when calculating the degree classification.

“So that single index of performance whether it’s a grade point average or an honours degree classification actually tells us very little about the trajectory of the student’s development.

“Now, what I’m not looking for here is consistency, it’s conformity, but looking for some consistency in the sense that departments and Schools have had a conversation about what is the best method and types of assessment for your particular discipline areas. And to think through what sort of feedback those assignments carry. You have a learning and teaching strategy and institutional learning and teaching strategy, do you have department strategies? Do you have a strategy on assessment?

“So it enables a group of you to get together and to reflect and update. Are we producing students for the modern century, or are we doing what we’ve done for the last ten, fifteen years?

“What skills and knowledge do we want our students to develop? Because one of the things that QAA said from a lot of institutions, they look at the learning outcomes and it said “Do we want our students to be good at, good communications skills, speaking in groups, teamwork”, and then you go back to that department with only exams, and you say “That’s fine, but how can you demonstrate that you’re encouraging your students to develop good team working, group skills, giving presentations, if all you do is set a formal examination?”

“If, for example, you want to communicate information in ideas other than the written word, are exams suitable? If you want the students to become more adept at writing in different forms, formats and genres, are an exam the answer? Or if you want to help students understand the benefits and challenges of working collaboratively, can that be only achieved by an exam? Or can we think of some more creative ways of doing it? Seminars, posters, video conferencing or other multimedia? Book reviews. Group problem solving. Team presentations, role plays or group exhibitions. Some of these are more relevant for different disciplines but it’s thinking of some more creative ways that are fit for the modern world.

“Students want more useful feedback, they also want more verbal and face to face feedback. So what can we stop doing to enable this to happen?

“University of Strathclyde Law School have stopped giving lectures and they’ve done it as a podcast. They don’t literally not turn up to lectures but the student is expected to look at the podcast before they turn up and then the whole of the lecture time is used for a series of question and answer, helping the students think through.

“So thinking of podcasts means we’re changing what we’re doing to enable us to have time to work with our students, to give that verbal feedback that what they’re saying is they find so useful.

“The days when we had the one to one tutorials, are very difficult when we’ve got large groups. That’s what students find valuable, what might we drop or do in different ways to enable that to happen?

“One of the things we often don’t do is induct students into assessment, we’re right in there, and a bit like me with that exam that I’d not taken for years, I didn’t quite know what to expect. So if we think back to our first years, when we give them their first piece of work, they’re coming from very different school backgrounds, they’re coming from different countries, they’re coming from very different types of educational experience. Their aspirations, their expectations vary enormously, and I think it’s really important that we try and work with them in those early few weeks to explore some of their perceptions and some of their expectations.

“They want something to benchmark themselves against so can we give them, with permission, three pieces of work from the past that is typed up so you can’t identify the student but the student has given permission, where you say to the students, “Okay, different types of work, put them in three piles or four piles from one that’s very good to one that you think might have failed or be an average piece of work”. And then say to the students, “Okay then, tease out the differences”. “Why have you put this piece of work in a sort of fail low mark, and why have you put this piece of work into, you know, an excellent piece of work?”, and therefore, “can you now come up with some criteria for what makes a good piece of work?”

“Students then provide feedback on that work. So you say to the students, “You’ve put them in groups, now put yourself in the place of the tutor, what feedback would you give to that failing student and what feedback would you give to that A grade student?”

“And then you say to them, “What have you learned from this?” But we need to explain to the students why we’re doing it. Getting the students actively involved.

“So what comes out there time and time again is that that personal touch, that dialogue, that working in partnership, it isn’t easy but again, I go back to what can we stop doing to enable that to happen, and how might we get the students supporting other students, to enable that to happen in different ways?

“This is now feeding forward, isn’t it? ‘If you did this piece of work again, what might you do differently?’ But also, ‘What have you learned from this piece of work that can take you forward?’

“So how might we develop those skills of self-reflection? First of all, let’s involve the students. When they hand in a piece of work, ‘Which areas did they think are good?’ ‘What do they want you to comment on?’ And what mark they think it deserves because so often students equate lots of hard work equals an A grade and unfortunately, life’s not like that.

“‘How did this essay make you think differently?’

“‘What part of this work do you feel less confident about?’

“‘Two things that you’ve learned doing this assignment that you did not expect to learn.’ That’s a good one, I think, I like that one. And

“‘If you were to do this assignment again, what one change would you make?’

“Using just one of these at the beginning of a lecture for five minutes can make a world of difference. Ask the students to bring in their work with the feedback, it’s again us showing that we think feedback is important.

“But I want to end now on seven principles of good practice. If we have these principles, then I think student learning will go up.

  1. Good feedback facilitates the development of self-reflection.
  2. It encourages that dialogue between students and teachers.
  3. It helps clarify what good performance is because we are making our comments against the criteria.
  4. It provides an opportunity for students to know how they can improve.
  5. It delivers high quality information to students about their learning.
  6. It gets their self confidence up because we’ve talked about how you would feel about receiving that feedback in groups.
  7. But quite importantly, it provides information to us

“If all the students are making the same mistake, then maybe we’ve got something wrong with our teaching. Maybe we can improve, maybe we can concentrate on some areas and not others.”

Brenda Smith
External Consultant.

This video was originally published as part of PESL’s Teaching at Nottingham collection.

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