I am in the middle of a large programme of work at my university addressing assessment and feedback. I have always understood that addressing the enhancement of academic practice in this area is more complex than some of the hygiene-focused discourse suggests and the conversations we are having with academic staff confirms that designing and delivery effective assessment is indeed a complex matter.
The methodology we are using includes running focus groups with academic course teams. This is turning out to be a real privilege as we get under the bonnet to examine what appears to be student dissatisfaction with aspects of their assessment and feedback experience. The beguiling thing is that we are hearing of some excellent accounts of academic teams doing things by the book, yet receiving poorer than expected scores in the NSS. There are minuscule comments and stories coming out of our rich discussions which we need to work through. However, one of these themes is about the attention we give to ‘the feedback problem’. The more I listen, the more I wonder if this should be reframed as ‘the briefing problem’.
Here’s an example.
Almost lost in the focus group conversation one academic says, “I think it could be about gender.” In this imbalanced course where there is a high proportion of female students with probably about 20% male students, and where incidentally there seems to be a dominance of white male teachers, you can see how our minds might turn to gender equality, but it turned to male student confidence and bluster; how male students will often rapidly assimilate assignment briefs and, being self-motivated but resistant to acknowledging weakness, will engage quickly with briefs having apparently formed a good mental picture of what is required and what they will do. So, when the academic asks, “Is everyone clear?”, those males are likely to give the thumbs up and say, “I’m fine” and get on with it. In the meantime the academic’s attention turns to those who seek further clarification; those who need to talk things through and mull things over. Those who are prepared to admit they don’t understand.
The outcome of a briefing phase such as this is hopefully a bunch of happy students with well-formed ideas of what is expected and at least the beginnings of ideas about how they are going to respond to the brief. At this point let’s put the gender dimension to one side.
Actually what we have is a bunch of students who have constructed a diverse set of mental maps that will, to some extent, determine what they will do in response to the task as they understand it. Their conceptions of the task are likely to be unreliable. Coursework design, where there are multiple opportunities for a student to redraw their map will help to address this, but if this goes unchecked there is a problem looming.
Let’s move to the post-task part of the story.
Students have received their marks. Some will be pleased because it reflects their expectations. They may not even bother picking up their feedback and, if they do, may give it a cursory glance. But let’s return to those students who knew exactly what was required and quickly formed their response. According to staff, they are often disappointed by their mark and in some cases will argue that the marking is unfair. Further, they don’t understand why the feedback is still saying they have not sufficiently met the learning outcomes. Even as they read or listen to the feedback their are given, their mental map remains as a strong interpretation filter or scaffold. They are dissatisfied. In fact some of them may feel hard done by and angry.
From the academic point of view, they have designed a good task and explained what is required. They have spent time clarifying this with those students who admitted they were unclear or confused. They have marked the assignment consistently because they have good moderation methods. They have given good feedback that explains misconceptions and suggests how students can improve in their next task. Where, they ask, are we going wrong? Why do we not improve in the NSS for assessment and feedback?
In this story I think we need to look at the beginning and not at the end. There are two simple points that can be made:
- Students can benefit from rehearsing with formative assessment so that they can find out before it becomes critical about the importance of reading the question and thoroughly checking their conception of a task.
- Staff need to consider briefing as a process and not as a straightforward event that happens at the outset of a task.
I have referred to coursework, but it applies to the design of any task in theory. The act of setting the task clearly is absolutely critical to the success of all students. If only some students have the right conception of what is required, then the question is invalid and unfair. Everything that follows becomes meaningless.
The advantage of coursework, in it various forms, is that it specifically creates space to develop understanding. The academic must look at their role in this space too to check that every student is actually clear, even if students confirm they are clear. Once we are sure that that has happened, it is only then appropriate to look at satisfaction with in terms of there being a feedback matter.