Feedback to Students

Extracts from 2000 Tips for Lecturers, edited by Phil Race, Kogan Page, London, 1999

If “assessment is the engine that drives learning” (John Cowan), then the ways in which we give feedback are important in gearing the engine so that maximum effect is achieved from the effort put in by all concerned. This section of the ‘Assessment’ chapter explores a variety of ways in which feedback can be given to students, and includes many suggestions for optimising the usefulness of such feedback.

1 Feedback should be targeted to enhance learning. Feedback should concentrate on what to do to improve. This is better than when feedback is heavily judgmental.

2 Feedback should be timely. When marked work is returned to students weeks (or even months) after submission, feedback is often totally ignored because it bears little relevance to students’ current needs then. Many institutions nowadays specify in their Student Charters that work should be returned within two to three weeks, enabling students to derive greater benefits from feedback. When feedback is received very quickly, it is much more effective, as students can still remember exactly what they were thinking as they addressed each task.

3 Think about how students will feel when they get marked work back. Students can be in states of heightened emotion at such points. If their scripts are covered with comments in red ink (even when it is all praise) it is rather intimidating for them at first.

4 Try to do more than put ticks. Tempting as it is to put ticks beside things that are correct or good, ticks don’t give much real feedback. It takes a little longer to add short phrases such as ‘good point’, ‘I agree with this’, ‘yes, this is it’, ‘spot on’, and so on, but such feedback comments do much more to motivate students than just ticks.

5 Avoid putting crosses if possible. Students often have negative feelings about crosses on their work, carried forward from schooldays. Short phrases such as ‘no’, ‘not quite’, ‘but this wouldn’t work’, and so on can be much better ways of alerting students to things that are wrong.

6 Try to make your writing legible. If there is not going to be room to make a detailed comment directly on the script, put code numbers or asterisks, and write your feedback on a separate sheet. A useful compromise is to put feedback comments on post-its stuck to appropriate parts of a script, but it’s worth still using a code, asterisk or some such device so that if students remove the post-its as they read through their work, they can still work out exactly which points your comments apply to.

7 Try giving some feedback before you start assessing. For example, when a class hands in a piece of work, you can issue at once handouts of model answers and discussions of the main things that may have caused problems. Students can read such information while their own efforts are still fresh in their minds, and can derive a great deal of feedback straightaway. You can then concentrate, while assessing, on giving them additional feedback individually, without going into detail on things that you have already addressed in your general discussion comments you have already given them.

8 Don’t forget to give positive feedback. It is sometimes difficult to find something good to say about a piece of work! Ideally, however, you should start by commenting on a positive aspect before leading into a critique.

9 Feedback should be efficient. It has often been found that the time taken over assessment on many courses was much greater than the time devoted to teaching and learning. Assessment systems should be devised to maximise the amount of feedback given to students within the time available. Such methods include the use of assignment return sheets, statement banks, and computer marked assignments.

10 Give feedback to groups of students sometimes. This helps students become aware that they are not alone in making mistakes, and allows them to learn from the successes and failures of others.

11 Let students argue. When giving one-to-one feedback, it is often useful to allow students the opportunity to interrogate you and challenge your comments (orally or in writing) so that any issues which are unclear can be resolved.

12 Feedback should be realistic. When making suggestions for improvement of student work, consider carefully whether they can be achieved. It may not have been possible (for example) for students to gain access to certain resources or books in the time available.

13 Feedback should be fair. Check that you are not giving feedback on the amount of money that was spent on the work you mark, for example when some students can submit work produced by expensive desktop publishing systems, while other students have no access to such facilities.

14 Feedback should be motivating. Think carefully about the language you use, so that students are encouraged into doing (even) better next time. The use of ‘final’ language such as ‘excellent’ may be rewarding to hear or read, but offers no indication to the best students regarding how they may stretch themselves even further.

15 Feedback should be honest. When there are serious problems which students need to be made aware of, feedback comments should not skirt round these or avoid them. It may be best to arrange for individual face-to-face feedback sessions wish some students, so you can give any bad news in ways where you can monitor how they are taking it, and provide appropriate comfort at the same time.

16 Feedback can be given before scores or grades. Consider whether sometimes it may be worth returning students’ work to them with feedback comments but no grades (but having written down your marks in your own records). Then invite students to try to work out what their scores or grade should be, and to report to you in a week’s time what they think. This causes students to read all your feedback comments earnestly in their bid to work out how they have done. Most students will make good guesses regarding their grades, and it’s worth finding out which students are way out too.

17 Think about audiotapes for giving feedback. In some subjects, it is quite hard to write explanatory comments on students’ work. For example, in mathematics, it can be quicker and easier to ‘talk’ individual students through how a problem should be solved, referring to asterisks or code-numbers marked on their work. Such feedback has the advantages of tone of voice for emphasis and explanation. Another advantage is that students can play it again, until they have fully understood all of your feedback.

18 Consider giving feedback by email. Some students feel most relaxed when working at a computer terminal on their own. With email, students can receive your feedback when they are ready to think about it. They can read it again later, and even file it. Using email, you can give students feedback asynchronously as you work through their scripts, rather than having to wait till you return the whole set to a class.

Reducing your load: short cuts to good feedback

Keep records carefully…
Keeping good records of assessment takes time, but can saves time in the long run. The following suggestions may help you organise your record-keeping.

1 Be meticulous. However tired you are at the end of a marking session, record all the marks immediately (or indeed continuously as you go along). Then put the marks in a different place to the scripts. Then should any disasters befall you (briefcase stolen, house burned down and so on) there is the chance that you will still have the marks even if you don’t have the scripts any longer (or vice versa).

2 Be systematic. Use class lists, when available, as the basis of your records. Otherwise make your own class lists as you go along. File all records of assessment in places where you can find them again. It is possible to spend as much time looking for missing marksheets as it took to do the original assessment!

3 Use technology to produce assessment records. Keep marks on a grid on a computer, or use a spreadsheet, and save by date as a new file every time you add to it, so you are always confident that you are working with the most recent version. Keep paper copies of each list as an insurance against disaster! Keep backup copies of disks or sheets - simply photocopying a handwritten list of marks is a valuable precaution.

4 Use technology to save you from number-crunching. The use of computer spreadsheet programs can allow the machine to do all of the sub-totalling, averaging and data handling for you. If you are afraid to set up a system for yourself, a computer-loving colleague of a member of information systems support staff will be delighted to start you off.

5 Use other people. Some universities employ administrative staff to issue and collect in work for assessment, and to make up assessment lists and input the data into computers. Partners, friends and even young children can help you check your addition of marks, and help you record the data.

Reduce your burden…

More and more lecturers are finding that the burden of assessment is becoming unmanageable. We offer a number of strategies below.

1 Reduce the number of assignments. Are all of them strictly necessary, and is it possible to combine some of them, and completely delete others?

2 Use shorter assignments. Often we ask for 2000, 3000 or 5000 word assignments, when a fraction of the length can be just as acceptable. Some essays or long reports could be replaced by shorter reviews, articles, memorandum-reports or summaries. Projects can be assessed by poster displays instead of reports, and exam papers can include some sections of multiple-choice questions particularly where these could be marked by optical mark scanners, or using computer managed assessment directly.

3 Use assignment return sheets. These can be proformas which contain the assessment criteria for an assignment, with spaces for ticks/crosses, grades, marks and brief comments. They enable rapid feedback on ‘routine’ assessment matters, providing more time for individual comment to students when necessary on deeper aspects of their work.

4 Consider using statement banks. These are a means whereby your frequently-repeated comments can be written once each then printed or emailed to students, or put onto transparencies or slides for discussion in a subsequent lecture.

5 Involve students in self or peer-assessment. Start small, and explain what you are doing and why. Involving students in some of their assessment can provide them with very positive learning experiences.

6 Mark some exercises in class time using self-or peer-marking. This is sometimes useful when students have prepared work expecting tutor-assessment, to the standard that they wish to be seen by you.

7 Don’t count all assessments. For example, give students the option that their best five out of eight assignments will count as their coursework mark. Students satisfied with their first five need not undertake the other three at all then.

And when you still find yourself overloaded…

No-one wants to have to cope with huge piles of coursework scripts or exam papers. However, not all factors may be within your control, and you may still end up overloaded. The following wrinkles may be somewhat soothing at such times!

1 Put the great unmarked pile under your desk. It is very discouraging to be continually reminded of the magnitude of the overall task. Put only a handful of scripts or assignments in sight – about as many as you might expect to deal with in about an hour.

2 Set yourself progressive targets. Plan to accomplish a bit more at each stage than you need to. Build in safety margins. This allows you some insurance against unforeseen disasters (and children), and can allow you to gradually earn some time off as a bonus.

3 Make an even-better marking scheme. Often, it only becomes possible to make a really good marking scheme after you’ve found out the ways that candidates are actually answering the questions. Put the marking scheme where you can see it easily. It can be useful to paste it up with Blu-Tack above your desk or table, so you don’t have to rummage through your papers looking for it every time you need it.

4 Mark in different places! Mark at work, at home, and anywhere else that’s not public. This means of course carrying scripts around as well as your marking scheme (or a copy of it). It does, however, avoid one place becoming so associated with doom and depression that you develop place-avoidance strategies for it!

5 Mark one question at a time through all the scripts, at first. This allows you to become quickly skilled at marking that question, without the agenda of all the rest of the questions on your mind. It also helps ensure reliability and objectivity of marking. When you’ve completely mastered your marking scheme for all questions, start marking whole scripts.

Copyright SDDU Created November 20, 2002