Why is developing academic practice important?
It's just as important for staff to reflect on their assessment and feedback practice as for students to consider the outcomes of particular assessments.
Learning and teaching practice does not stand still. Whilst underlying good practice principles may have a relatively long validity, the changing technical landscape regularly offers new ways of implementing good practice.
Even the underpinning principles themselves require review at certain intervals. For example, recent research into approaches such as peer review reveals benefits that you should take into account when updating assessment strategies.
What are the common problems?
Time is an important factor. Staff overloaded by traditional assessment and feedback practices don't have time to step back and reflect on how to do things differently and better. This is a particular issue where the underlying processes are poor; academic staff often describe themselves as being on a treadmill where they identify underlying, badly designed business processes but don't have the time or analysis skills to redesign them.
Risk aversion is also a significant issue. Staff don't want to take risks with something as important as assessment practice. They may fear the opinion of external quality assessors or worry that innovative or unfamiliar types of assignment may prove problematic for students and bring down the grade point average.
"New tutors often have a limited feel for what good feedback looks like or what standard of feedback, in terms of length and specificity, is expected. They may concentrate on proving their superior knowledge to the student rather than focussing on improving the students’ work in future."
Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment (TESTA)
Culture is also an issue. Approaches to assessment and feedback are often highly personal. Academic staff often don't view themselves as having regular working hours. The fact that they often complete marking and feedback off campus suggests that it's done in their own time and they should therefore have freedom of choice in how they do it.
Feedback in particular has been described as taking place in a black box with little or no discussion amongst programme teams about approaches and the types of feedback given by individual academics. In these circumstances it is not surprising to find inconsistent approaches and variable quality.
Despite rigorous processes to ensure quality and standards, marking and grading is still a subjective matter. New lecturers tend to rely more heavily on written criteria but also to mark more harshly. More experienced lecturers may develop tacit and personalised standards of marking which are not necessarily shared across the whole programme or department.
Evidence from feedback audits undertaken by Jisc projects shows that typical feedback profiles may differ considerably between institutions. In our audits the 'typical' profile in each sample skewed towards a particular type of feedback:
- In sample A (postgraduate online distance learning programme in medical education) 95% of feedback related to content and 72% related to the immediate task
- In sample B (a range of masters level courses in education) praise statements were the most common element of summative feedback; there was little advice given and that advice was short rather than longer term
- In sample C (modern languages) a higher percentage of comments concentrated on weaknesses rather than strengths.
Good feedback looks at strengths and weaknesses and helps students define specific actions for improvement which feeds into future assignments. In the resources below you will find some tools to help you undertake your own feedback audit.
How might we use technology and what are the benefits?
It can streamline business processes and simplify workflows by automating many manual tasks. Having assignments in digital format offers many advantages over the issues associated with copying, distributing and storing material on paper.
E-marking and e-feedback can be quicker and more user-friendly, both for staff and students, than traditional methods (see our section on marking practice).
There are a range of online tools available to support staff development by helping with feedback auditing and supporting tutor self-development and we point to some of these in our resources section.
How does designing assessment practice relate to the lifecycle?
The reflecting stage covers not only student reflection but also staff reflection both on their own practice and student performance to inform future iterations of similar courses.
What resources can help?
Our video case study outlines how Queen's University, Belfast changed assessment and feedback practices using appreciative inquiry approaches:
- University College London's feedback profiling tool and supporting guidance enables individuals or teams to analyse feedback and encourages reflection
- The Open Mentor tool supports tutor reflection on feedback
- The Feedback Analysis Chart for Tutors (FACT) is an evaluation tool based on feedback 'depth'
- The University of Dundee's action plan template assists with developing assessment and feedback practice.
Consensus marking exercise (adapted from the work of TESTA)
The TESTA project highlighted student awareness of variations between markers. They identify ‘hawks’ and ‘sparrows’ on programme teams and often choose modules accordingly.
This exercise strengthened shared standards and consistency between markers:
- Use two previously assessed scripts at the same level but with different marks
- Invite the programme team to an hour long meeting
- Ask colleagues to brainstorm what they are looking for in this assignment – this should be fresh and intuitive rather than orthodox
- Ask colleagues to read and mark the pieces
- Collect initial marks in a hat – written but anonymous
- Discuss the pieces to gain impressions
- Agree a consensus mark, and compare with initial marks
- Revise criteria or agree to meet again to discuss other assessed work.
The team tried the exercise without the anonymous marks. A respected academic spoke first and dismissed one piece that had previously been double marked and given two first class marks. Most of the team adjusted to this and gave the work 50s and low 60s with no-one daring to give it a first. This demonstrates the value of the anonymous initial marking.
Good practice in feedback monitoring
The Open University (OU) has the highest ratings of any university for feedback in the National Student Survey even though all of its teaching takes place at a distance. The OU gives all of its tutors training on how to give feedback. They provide exemplars of good feedback and advice on using the 'OU sandwich’ of positive comments, advice on how to improve, followed by an encouraging summary.
The OU also monitors the standard of feedback that tutors provide to students. An experienced staff tutor samples new tutors’ marking. If they see feedback that falls below accepted standards (for example too brief to be understandable) or is inappropriate (ie, overly critical with little advice on how to improve), they will contact the tutor for a discussion. That tutor’s feedback will go on a higher level of monitoring until it's seen to improve.
Walsall College, which has an outstanding Ofsted rating, takes a similar approach. It has a number of ‘coaches’ who sample feedback for each subject area and provide staff development for any tutors whose feedback is felt to be inappropriate for the level of study - particularly that which focuses only on the assessment criteria and not on longitudinal development. Careful monitoring of feedback provided by new tutors takes place in the early days.
Both the OU and Walsall College operate strict rules for the timely return of feedback and monitor tutor adherence to this.