Is feedback really the problem?

I went to the Heads of Educational Development (HeDG) Group last week where the major topic of the morning session was looking at assessment and feedback run by the ASKe CeTL – Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange.  The idea of the session was that we started to think about feedback differently and that really it is about dialogue.   This didn’t surprise me, as I guess the way I do think about feedback is dialogue, but then, on reflection, I guess that much of the way we give feedback within a University setting makes it not about dialogue at all, but more one way traffic – the feedback cul-de-sac.  There are a variety of reasons for this, but what can we do so that more learning becomes about dialogue.

ASKe have done some good work on articulating a set of principles around feedback – the Osney Grange agenda for change – and some Universities have adopted these principles.  Is this something we should be doing?

We are currently exploring the thorny issue of feedback on exam scripts and whilst I think in principle this is a positive step – students should be able to receive information on the work they have submitted regardless of the form of assessment – what is the benefit of this feedback? If we view feedback as dialogue, in fact, I would argue, learning as dialogue, then what kind of dialogue can we have about an exam that will be worthwhile, particularly if it is a final year exam? When will the student ever need those sort of skills – ie write as much as you can on these topics in three hours – again in their professional lives? And is writing an exam a general skill for life? I’m not so sure.  Was my ability to write very quickly and a lot in a short amount of time on all aspects of English Literature a skill I have used in later life?  No (I don’t think it even particularly helped with my Prince2 examinations as it just meant I could write even more which was not necessary!).  Ok so that is oversimplifying it but we need to think about what we are examining and why.

Most Universities are very concerned about assessment and feedback at the moment. It is the poorest area for NSS scores and there is the notion that students are widely dissatisfied with their feedback. However, a bit of scratching the surface reveals this is not necessarily true.  The validity of the NSS is widely debated but perhaps we are setting ourselves up to fail by asking students about feedback in a particular way?  And really is feedback the problem or is it actually the way we assess in the first place and in relation to that the way we design our programmes and modules?

Once again, what this has made me think about is how important it is that we don’t think about assessment and feedback in isolation.  We should be thinking about what we want our students to achieve and then how they can do this – and feedback is just part of the solution, alongside the way we teach, the way we encourage and support our students in learning and the knowledge we encourage them to have.  None of this is rocket science, but why does it seem to hard to achieve?

One Reply to “Is feedback really the problem?”

  1. I am a novice on this topic so here are my thoughts. The link you make between assessment and feedback is an important one and taking a Systems Thinking view can be helpful here – see – The principal aim of assessment must be to provide the student with feedback, good or bad, on her performance in order that she a) understands where improvement is needed and b) takes action to bridge the performance gap. In every assessment case feedback is required and can take multiple forms. At which stage do we acknowledge the student’s preferred method of assessment and feedback?

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