There is a subtle but persistent push in teaching in higher education at the moment to improve feedback on assessment to students. This is largely because of the National Student Survey, a survey of final year students on various aspects of their university experience, states that students are dissatisfied with the feedback they have received on assessed work. You can look up a summary of universities and courses with reference to the NSS on the Unistats website. In the NSS, students are asked to assess statements such as:
Feedback on my work has been prompt.
I have received detailed comments on my work.
Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand.
The quality and usefulness of feedback is highly subjective and varies from student to student. The quality of feedback varies from lecturer to lecturer and is often more a function of workload, number of students in class, turn around time and institutional expectation. If I look back on my tutorial sheets from my undergrad which were handed in and marked, I note that I don’t have anything near a complete set of answers. By this I mean that my work was marked (often with ticks and crosses and minimal comments), I attended a tutorial session on the sheets and made some notes on key points brought up by the tutor, but at no point was a set of model answers provided by the lecturer. As a lecturer, I think the basic expectation of my students is that model answers for problem sheets will be provided at some point following the problems class. Lab reports followed a similar theme but with more comments aimed at improving the next lab report. How much use I made of these comments I can’t recall but I suspect that my class on average were little different in that regard from the students I now teach.
If we look at the first statement above about prompt feedback. I know that feedback is not the same as a mark, but do my students? I once gave work back very quickly only to have a few students tell me that they didn’t want it yet as they expected it in two weeks and just wanted to forget about it. So ‘prompt’ is probably a meaningless term. Most institutions have recommendations as to how swift marking must be completed and I think students have a sense of how long they want to exist in the ‘ignorance of my mark is bliss’ phase of assessment!
What are ‘detailed comments’ and are they actually useful? This is harder to address: detailed comments can often be perceived as nitpicking. The clichéd idea of a grad student trooping back from her supervisors office with a manuscript draft soaked in red ink, not a single line left uncorrected, comes to mind at this point. How detailed is detailed? Are we required to correct every single error, omission, misconception or style error in a document? Is it sufficient to give some general comments on the top few things that will improve the grade next time (promoting a focus on assessment perhaps?), or can other means be utilised to successfully provide detailed comments without breaking the reasonable effort barrier. And reasonable effort is key here – how many times will I hand work back only to see the student glance at the grade, shrug their shoulders and file the work, never intending to view it again. I would be substantially more willing to provide more detailed, individualized comments if I had some evidence that those comments were reflected on and acted upon in the next assignment.
Feedback as a means of clarification is also an interesting one. I’m not convinced I can always determine the basis of a misunderstanding, or that it is a misunderstanding of the subject rather than the assessment requirements, or that it isn’t just laziness or something else. If there is limited evidence of engagement with an assignment, the feedback can only address that which is present, it cannot address those mistakes or misconceptions that the student has yet to make. Of course feedback can’t be prescient, anticipating the future mistakes of a student as she engages more fully with the material, but there are ways to deal with this. I believe that cohort feedback (that is general feedback to a whole class) allows students to learn from each other’s mistakes, particularly those they may not have made yet. Great examples of this include providing model answers with commentary, commentary on final examinations (a good answer included…, common errors were…).
The bottom line here is that feedback is only as good as the use to which it is put. If our students do not engage sufficiently with what is already given, there is little point in spending large quantities of time creating more detailed or complex feedback. There is a caveat though, we should always put sufficient care into our feedback to ensure that the mode of delivery (scrappy handwriting, intimidating audio, overly large video) is not the barrier to engagement.