Refining traditional feedback
A good many of the strategies surveyed in this website aim to augment, complement or substitute for traditional approaches to feedback. But there is also value in exploring what might be done to work with the grain, by trying to strengthen traditional feedback.
We’ve identified three strategies for pursuing that goal: speeding up the process with faster feedback; aiming for greater clarity and consistency through pro forma feedback ; and refocusing written comments to boost the helpfulness of feedback for students and their learning.
There are three options for speeding up the provision of feedback and its immediacy for students, with the broader aim of increasing its impact on their progress and performance. The high-tech option is most commonly found in larger courses where multiple-choice or similar types of questions are a significant component in the overall assessment mix. In such instances, it typically takes the form of an online computerised resource that enables students at various points in a course to test out their understanding, and to get instant constructive feedback on those items which they answer incorrectly (for example, Plastow, 2007).
A lower-tech form of speedier feedback links rapid, whole-class feedback to tutorial activities, as exemplified in initiatives in the fields of Law (Glofcheski, 2006) and Politics (Macmillan and Mclean, 2005). The whole-class approach is also a speedy way of providing feedback on exams, typically via a medium such as email to communicate with students for whom timetabled classes have come to an end.
Glofcheski, R. (2006). Same-day feedback and analysis of assessed coursework. In Carless, D. et al. (ed.) How Assessment Supports Learning: Learning-Oriented Assessment in Action. Section 3.6. Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP.
Students studying Law submit a solution to a hypothetical problem. This problem is discussed later that day in a tutor-led discussion. The tutor then places an 'ideal' solution on the course website.
Macmillan, J. and Mclean, M.J. (2005). Making first-year tutorials count. Active Learning in Higher Education. 6.2, pp. 94-105.
In a first-year module on International Relations, students were asked to submit briefing papers five days before tutorials. These were then discussed with other students during the tutorial and individual feedback was given at the same time by the tutor. Three days after the tutorial students submitted evaluation papers, taking into account feedback from the tutor and other students.
Plastow, K. (2007) Online assessment feedback as an instrument of reflective practice. ALTC, Universities of Melbourne and Sydney: Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences website.
A team teaching in the Biosciences used a set of guiding principles to write feedback comments for right and wrong MCQ responses, which were delivered immediately after the submission of the online test. The benefits to students included the immediate correction of errors in thinking.
Sellers, D. Improving feedback in a level 5 Pathology module. FAST Case Study (Formative Assessment in Science Teaching).
Assessment and feedback pro formas (also called 'cover sheets, 'assignment attachments', and in the US, 'rubrics') are widely used as a way of framing and focusing comments to students in a standard format. They can take various forms, which are illustrated in the downloadable examples of pro formas attached.
In their most common forms, pro formas provide a set of standard headings under which to group feedback comments [as in example 1], and/or to evaluate a student's achievement along a number of rating scales with a tick or cross [as in example 2 and example 3]. In either case, all or most of the headings or scales used mirror the criteria being adopted to assess the assignment or script concerned. However, some pro formas add a box for general comments [as in example 4] or – with an eye to encouraging more feedforward comments – 'Suggestions for improvement'. And some [again, as in example 4] may separate out criteria which are individually rated from other observations which need only be noted.
Where rating scales are used, they can be points along a single dimension, contrasting poles on a continuum, multidimensional, and accompanied by a one-word label or with an explanatory phrase. [See, for instance, example 2, example 3, example 5 and example 6]. And as these examples also show, points on a scale may indicate a broad level of attainment (e.g. on a range from 'low to 'high') or be individually graded (A, B, C, etc). A recent refinement is to add information about where the student concerned stands relative to the rest of the class [example 7] on each criterion.
Examples of pro formas can be found not only for use with traditional essays and reports, but also, for instance, to convey feedback on placements and field experience [example 6, example 8], laboratory work [example 9], posters [example 10], projects [example 11] and presentations [example 12].
Using a pro forma to communicate feedback can have several advantages:
• linking feedback directly to assessment criteria can be helpful to both marker (to maintain focus and aid consistency of coverage across a set of assignments or scripts) and student (seeing how comments or ratings relate to the criteria)
Where students become familiar with a pro forma over time, it can also serve as a bridge to self-generated or peer feedback. Example 13, for instance, is an Essay Feedback Checklist which students completed and submitted alongside their essays; their tutors, who used the same checklist, were then able to target feedback on mismatches between their own and the students' ratings (Norton et al., 2002).
Similarly, inviting students to design a pro forma (or adapt an existing one for use with a different kind of assignment), can be a powerful way of interacting with students to enhance their grasp of assessment expectations and standards.
Feedback pro formas can have disadvantages too. Finer-grained comments can lose ground to rating scales if pro forma use is not regularly monitored across a course team. And where a pro forma is imposed upon a team rather than jointly devised, it can be seen by some markers as more hindrance than help.
Allen, D. and Tanner, K. (2006) Rubrics: tools for making learning goals and evaluation criteria explicit for both teachers and learners. CBE Life Science Education 5(3), 197-203.
Cooper, D. (2005) Assessing what we have taught: the challenges faced with the assessment of oral presentation skills. In: Higher Education in a Changing World: proceedings of the 28th HERDSA Annual Conference, Sydney, 3-6 July 2005.
Freake, S. Reformatting feedback on assignments to enhance effectiveness. FAST Case Study (Formative Assessment in Science Teaching).
Mulder, R.(2009) Use of a scoring matrix to provide detailed feedback on performance. ALTC, Universities of Melbourne and Sydney: Enhancing Assessment in the Biological Sciences website.
Norton, L., Clifford, R., Hopkins, L., Toner, I. and Norton, J.C.W. (2002) Helping psychology students write better essays. Psychology Learning and Teaching 2(2), 116-126.
Tang, S.Y.F. and Chow, A.W.K. (2007) Communicating feedback in teaching practice supervision in a learning-oriented field experience assessment framework. Teaching and Teacher Education 23(7), 1066-1085
For a great many students and their teachers, feedback is indelibly associated with the written comments that accompany a grade or mark on assigned and assessed work. And it seems likely that this form of feedback will continue to be extensively used in the future.
It does however, have widely documented shortcomings (see e.g. Black & Wiliam, 1998; Chanock, 2000; Higgins et al. 2002; Hounsell, 2007; Weaver, 2006). The evidence suggests, for instance, that however well-intentioned or painstakingly crafted, written comments can lack transparency, because they allude to a set of standards and conventions (e.g. about 'good structure', or the use of evidence) that students aren't yet familiar with. The comments may also be so focused on negatives (what a student hasn't done well) rather than positives that they undermine rather than enhance students' self-confidence or commitment to the subject. Or they dwell too intently on what the student might have done in a piece of work that is now of-the-past rather than in-the-present, and at the expense of advice on how to do better in future.
The most recent evidence comes from a study by Walker (2009) that combined an analysis of Engineering and Computing tutors' written comments with follow-up interviews with the students concerned. Using Brown and Glover's typology (2006), Walker found that two-fifths of the tutors' comments were on content, one-fifth on skills development (e.g. on structure, focus on the question set, communicative grasp), and about one-third were motivating in their use of praise or encouragement.
Walker was also concerned with how usable the students had found the comments, whether retrospectively – for the assignment submitted – or prospectively, in improving their future work in the subject. What emerged from the interviews was that the students found the skills development comments the most usable in future work. In addressing gaps in an assignment just submitted, however, the students prized comments which included an element of explanation, and which therefore helped them to bridge the gap between their current knowledge, understanding and skills and those expected of them. It was also apparent that a relatively high proportion of comments made on assignments were unlikely to be usable.
A follow-up study of Language tutors' comments (Fernandez-Toro and Truman, 2009) highlights the subject dimension to comments. They found that, relative to the Computing and Engineering tutors, the Languages tutors comment more on skills than on content, made more comments simply indicating (rather than correcting) errors or providing explanations.
What implications might be drawn from findings such as these about focusing comments effectively?
Comments are more likely be effective if :
• they focus on the task undertaken or the work produced, rather than being directed at the student personally
The impact of feedback comments is also likely to be maximised when efforts to draft more constructive comments are accompanied by one or more of the following:
• where feasible, inviting feedback on feedback, with the aim of getting a fuller grasp of what kinds of comments, in what forms, students find most helpful
Bright, K. Providing individual written feedback on formative and summative assessments. Higher Education Academy UK Centre for Legal Education resource.
Fernandez-Toro, M. and Truman, M. (2009) Improved learning through improved feedback on Languages TMAs. (Interim report). Milton Keynes: Open CETL, Open University.
Glover, C. and Brown, E. (2006) Written feedback for students: too much, too detailed or too incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscience Education 7
Malouff, J. Rooke, S. and Schutte N. (2008) Helping students improve their writing. Association for Psychological Science Observer 21(8)
Mutch, A. (2003) Exploring the practice of feedback to students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 4 (1), 24-38.
Pitts, S. (2005) 'Testing, testing...' How do students use written feedback? Active Learning in Higher Education, 6 (3), 218-229.
Rae, A. M., and Cochrane, D. K. (2008) Listening to students: How to make written assessment feedback useful. Active Learning in Higher Education, 9.3, pp. 217-230.
Walker, M. (2009) An investigation into written comments on assignments: do students find them usable? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34(1), 67-78.
Weaver, M. (2006) Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors' written responses. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31(3), 379-394.
Young, P. (2000) 'I might as well give up': self-esteem and mature students' feelings about feedback on assignments. Journal of Further and Higher Education 24(3), pp. 409-418.
Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education 5(1), pp.7-74
Brown, E. & Glover, C. (2006) Evaluating written feedback. In: Brown, E. and Glover, C. Innovative Assessment in Higher Education. London/New York: Routledge, pp. 81-91.
Carless, D. (2006) Differing perceptions in the feedback process. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 219-233.
Chanock, K. (2000) Comments on essays: do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education 5 (1), 95–105
Higgins, R. et al. (2002) The conscientious consumer: reconsidering the role of assessment feedback in student learning. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), pp. 53 - 64
Hounsell, D. (2007). Towards more sustainable feedback to students. In: Boud, D. and Falchikov, N., eds. Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education. Learning for the Longer Term. London: Routledge, pp. 101-113.
Price, M. (2007) Should we be giving less written feedback? Centre for Bioscience Bulletin No. 22, p.9.
Swithenby, S. Feedback can be a waste of time. Open University: Challenging Perspectives on Assessment.