‘Feedback is good for you, like exercise and broccoli’, said Imogen Moore from the University of Bristol Law School in her seminar on 5th December, Feedback: Encouraging Engagement and Dialogue (quote from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, Douglas Stone, Sheila Heen). We know it’s good for us but, according to Moore, feedback receives a consistently low score in student satisfaction surveys. So why isn’t it working? Moore offered some really interesting insights that we can take forward when thinking about how to integrate good assessment and feedback opportunities into the Bristol Futures enrichment courses, as well as in the University more widely. Here are some of the main points the seminar covered:
We’ve all had an older family member talk about how things were ‘back in their day’ (in my case, mostly when I’m moaning about my online shopping having not arrived on time). In that vein, Moore suggested that some lecturers are of the opinion that ‘we didn’t get any help at University, why should they?’
The fact that students are paying higher fees in recent years was offered as an explanation as to why feedback satisfaction rates are so low; students expect more help because they’re paying more money to be at University. But I think there’s more to it than that. The internet has changed the studying process unrecognisably, and students going to university in the digital age face different challenges to those who went earlier. With more ideas and information floating around in a global space, students are able to combine traditional book based research with online resources and improve their work as a result, but with an influx of information at their disposal, we need to recognise that students might need more direction as to which information is valuable.
‘More’ isn’t always ‘better’
One of the main questions raised during the seminar was how to make feedback engaging and worthwhile. Moore talked about feedback as a ‘dialogue’ rather than a one off, tutor led event, with the student taking an active, central role in the feedback. Here are some of her ideas and my thoughts on them:
- Reducing the stakes
- Moore suggested making formative assessments optional in order to encourage growth and dialogue, only putting formal weight on the summative assessment. Her idea is that this will encourage students to talk about how they can improve and see opportunities for growth, rather than give up and lose confidence at the sign of a bad grade
- My worry here would be that, in the busy lives of students, ‘optional’ could quite easily be taken to mean ‘it doesn’t matter’. Although it’s ultimately the prerogative of the students to engage with their degree, this approach could actually end up disengaging students who have jobs or heavy involvement with societies, who will deprioritise non-compulsory work for something they consider more immediately worthwhile
- Moving from ‘evaluation’ to ‘coaching’
- When the focus is on evaluation, students tend to think of their rank or rating, triggering a defensive response. When the focus is on coaching, the student can learn and grown from their mistakes and past efforts. Moore suggested introducing developmental formal opportunities, for example submitting a plan for a summative assessment.
- I think this is really valuable; sometimes the hardest thing about being a student is to organise your thoughts into a coherent answer, and so having the opportunity to run your thoughts past your tutor is always going to be a positive thing. However, we need to keep in mind that students want grades – would grading something like an assessment plan encourage or discourage engagement with the summative assessment itself?
Should we engage students in feedback policy and practice?
The co-creation of resources has become really popular in materials development over recent years. I found it really interesting to hear Moore talking about how, during her time at the University of Reading, they held student forums with the aim of influencing feedback policy and practice. She recognised the benefits of getting the students involved in the process, in that it increased a shared understanding between students and lecturers, but commented that a negative aspect of the exercise was the fact that students don’t want a direct involvement in actually writing the policies and prefer to take a consultative role. My thought was, why should they want a direct involvement? To me, this is a bit like saying ‘lecturers are happy to provide their opinion on my essay but they don’t want to write it for me’. Co-creation should be a combined effort with the responsibility for certain tasks or processes falling on the right shoulders; lecturers are essentially co-creating a student’s journey through university by providing feedback on their work and, in the case of the University of Reading, students are co-creating policies by providing feedback on the feedback process.
Overall, it became clear that students want specific advice on how to improve, as well as prompt feedback, guidance on how to use the feedback they are given and examples of good and bad practice. As one of Imogen Moore’s students has said, ‘if I knew what I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t have done it’. Online connectivity offers a number of possibilities for online guidance and feedback, and the TELED team are already managing some really useful methods, including audio and video feedback, iPad marking and TurnitIn Grademark. Hopefully we’ll see student satisfaction on feedback improve with more schools and departments, as well as the Bristol Futures enrichment courses, adopting online processes and thinking about how they can best deliver feedback to encourage maximum engagement and dialogue.