Is written feedback on assignments useless? Listening to Phil Race at Gloucestershire..

On January 20th, we had the pleasure at Gloucestershire to welcome Phil Race, to spend a day with us, talking primarily about the issues of assessment and feedback in Higher Education. You can read more, and download the slides he used, via his blog post about the visit, but I want to focus in here on just one comment he made, that rather stuck in my head.

Trying to think through the types of feedback we give students (that might actually be useful to them, help them develop, perform better and understand what they have done well and less well), Phil commented that ‘written feedback is virtually useless for this’. I wrote this down. I hardly ever write things down during keynote-type lectures.* Students may glance at written comments to see the rationale for their grade – why it didn’t get the mark they anticipated, or the reason it was above/below their usual grades, but that was, it was implied, the end of the matter.

This seems to match my experience. I have asked students, increasingly, about their working processes. This has been interesting in all sorts of ways, but it was notable that none ever mentions that they refer to previous written feedback. Ever. They would PhilRace.jpgprobably have to log back in to an Electronic Management of Assessment system to retrieve it, or in the ancient times (still in effect in some lands), find that crumpled paper in the bottom of a bag.*** An obstacle too far. So what can we do instead?

I have made use of audio feedback – as I discuss in a blog post – and the students usually download this to hear it – so it sits on their device/laptop: more accessible, and with the tone-of-voice nuances that verbal communication allows. I have been pleasantly surprised with the student response to this. Not having anonymous marking here (and I know there are a variety of views on benefits and drawbacks of this) does mean I can do the thing that students seem to really appreciate: personalise their feedback. I always open my audio response with their name, and a reference to how they have done in respect of either previous work, their goals, issues we have addressed in class or tutorials, and then move to talk about how they should plan for the next piece. It is not a silver bullet. Some students don’t revisit the feedback when they start their next work: but my experience has been of a greater engagement with the feedback. That is a start!

The other experiment that a colleague and I have tried, and helped mentor others to begin, is the use of cohort feedback – feeding into the following year group. We have made (in our case) short video conversations – where we have asked each other “what did the students Screen shot 2017-01-26 at 14.29.49.pngseem to really struggle with in this assignment?”, “what really marked out the better pieces of work?”, etc. This was made available to the whole class – as it did not identify any students by name. It also allowed us to make it available to the class the next year – so they could use it as, to see previous feedback and issues with the assessment, while they were still planning their own responses to the module content (even if the exact questions were not the same).

You could do all this on bits of paper / documents on your VLE, but the ease of using audio/video formats makes it much quicker to produce, and it seems to speak to students
in ways they are much more likely to access and make use of. I may never write a feedback comment down again…



*I occasionally tell students to put down pens, stop taking notes, and listen carefully. They faithfully note down this instruction, and sit, pens poised for the next droplet of my mighty wisdom.**

**This isn’t always, really, the case: but it has happened, and I thought it was an interesting illustration of how, on occasion, our keenness to capture things short-circuits our actual paying attention…

***When we did have paper assignments, it was amazing (to me, then), the great number that were never collected. The students saw their grade – and job done! All that sweat and thought – all those wise marginal scrawlings never read…

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