Feedback about the feedback
There is a lot of time pressure on academics and while some of it can be predicted (#MarkingHell), some of it is less predictable; research projects evolve and require attention; a call to provide a service within the university at short notice, (and/)or a high teaching load. It can lead to academics feeling pulled in all directions feeling as though they are only making slow headway towards their primary goals. Therefore, it’s no surprise that academics look for ways to minimise some of these time pressures so that they can concentrate on those things that they feel are most important in their career. That makes sense: either become hyper-efficient at, say, marking assignments through enlisting the aid of technology, or do the minimum amount possible thereby shortening the time required for that task.
Technology certainly has a role to play in improving efficiencies. Comment ‘libraries’ can provide quick copy-and-paste comments for the more common and frequently used feedback statements (did someone just say ‘needs a reference here’?). Indeed I make good use of a digital marking library that I have developed over the years. In fact, when I opened it up for use by my teaching team I found that we cut marking time by about a third. In itself, this seems like a good thing. Less time marking means more time doing something else.
But faster doesn’t always mean better. If my teaching team and I aren’t providing high quality feedback in the first place, just speeding the process up does not drive better student outcomes. Copy and paste of generic feedback statements isn’t good enough: students need direct, targeted and actionable feedback if they are to improve.
Last year I instituted a new requirement in the assessment pieces associated with my strategic management class for the group assignment: Feedback about the feedback. This process works in the context of two, linked group assignments – the first assignment is due about half way through the semester and the second at the end of the semester. Students used theory and the information that they gather for the first assignment to help them make recommendations in the second assignment. The aim here is that students take the feedback that we give them in the first assignment and use that to improve their performance for the second.
It works like this:
- Build an extensive marking library to help with the heavy lifting of the most common and repeated feedback comments – share with marking team;
- Provide clear examples of high quality feedback and spend time training the marking team on how to write effective feedback that is targeted, relevant and provides clear advice on how to improve (in addition to the generic feedback comments);
- Put a new requirement in the second assessment piece for the students: ‘as an appendix, write a 500 word ‘response’ to the feedback provided by the marker in the first assignment incorporating what strategies the students are going to use when writing the second assessment piece of assessment in order to improve’.
- Encourage the students to seek further, targeted clarification if required. To do that, I shot a video explaining how the feedback process works and how it will help.
Frankly, they were astonishing. We saw a dramatic uplift in the performance of students in the second assignment compared to the first, but most importantly, the kinds of improvements we saw were directly linked to feedback that we gave the students in the first assignment. For example, if we pointed out that the students had not read widely enough to have a solid understanding of the theory, we tended to see evidence in the second assignment of a deeper engagement with the readings and also an improved understanding and application of theory. If, in the first assignment, our feedback suggested that students needed to focus more on the implications of the actions that they were recommending, we tended to see students beef up that aspect in their second assignment. We also saw an improvement in final grades compared to previous semesters.
Putting in the 500 word response ‘requirement’ ensured that the students at least read our feedback and it also ensured that the markers provided enough feedback of the correct kind that allowed students to get an idea about how to improve. Win-win.
Now, of course, not all students engaged with this process fully, but the magic of it is that our marking team (which includes me) had no way of knowing prior to reading the second assignment which student groups were going to take our feedback and act on it and which weren’t. This meant that we had to provide excellent feedback for all groups (we should have been doing that anyway).
The upshot of all this is that our marking and feedback process is more thorough and when it comes to allocating grades in the second assignment students can see why they were awarded the grades that they got. If we pointed out in their first assignment that their referencing needed to improve, but there was no attempt to improve it in the second assignment, then the students could not complain that they were given a poor grade in terms of that element. For me this is important because as course-coordinator when students complain about their grades, I can point back to our feedback and show them that despite being told how to improve that they didn’t take up the opportunity. Last semester I had the smallest number of queries and ‘appeals’ against grading than I’ve ever had. Better feedback processes saved me work.
I’ll be using this process again in my new course Management In Practice and tracking the outcomes. If you try something similar, I’d love to hear how it works for you.