The UK's National Student Survey consistently shows that the most pressing concerns of students relate to assessment and the inadequacy of feedback. Despite concerted attempts to remedy this - "Make sure you are telling students that they are getting feedback!", "Enforce tight turnaround times on marking!", senior managers tell us - the problem appears to be intractable.
But this is not the case. And while we might prefer to ignore students' complaints, we must not ignore research suggesting that improvements to feedback can have a greater impact on learning, at potentially lower cost, than other interventions.
The intensity of student interest in feedback is undoubtedly due to the high stakes attached to getting good grades. Clearly, great care must be given to accuracy and fairness, but this is not enough.
Feedback provides one of the few mechanisms through which courses are tailored to students. While all students are exposed to the same lectures and tutorials, they separately receive comments related to the specific qualities of their own work. This is how a mass higher education system adapts to the individual.
Many academics continue to see the problem of feedback as residing in individual markers not doing their job effectively. They don't focus on the way courses are organised. There is now a substantial body of research that provides good ideas for improving feedback through simple course changes, but little of this is taken up in practice.
So, what must be done to ensure that feedback is effective?
We need to return to the original idea of feedback, which was borrowed from disciplines such as engineering and biology. The key idea is that feedback has not occurred unless it leads to a change in the system (or the organism). The effectiveness of feedback is not judged in terms of a desire to make a difference, as typically occurs in education, but on the difference that is actually made. That is, we should be looking for changes in students' subsequent work to see if all the time and effort spent on formulating helpful comments has been understood and acted upon.
We should not act as if students are passive creatures who are not supposed to do anything with the information we provide. Feedback needs to be processed and used by students, and clarification sought as needed. The greatest barrier to this active engagement is the way courses are organised. All too often, it remains the case that students receive information at a time when they can't use it or when the time to use it has passed.
We should not forget that students can give and receive valuable feedback themselves. Far greater use could be made of this. Not only does it provide a vital employment skill (experience of working with other people), it results in far more feedback being generated than could be given by teaching staff alone. Often the greatest benefits accrue to those who give feedback to fellow students because the process requires them to formulate their thoughts and express them clearly.
So the answer to my question is to focus on good course design, not to spend more time on marking. When students receive comments on their work, they should expect this to be the start of the process, not the end of it. We need to follow through rather than relentlessly move on to the next activity.
More is at stake, even, than students' futures. The ubiquity of the digital environment and the increasing availability of high-quality open-access material from the best teachers in the world are forcing universities to look closely at what they offer. Feedback on students' work is one of the few really responsive aspects of teaching. Pertinent feedback that leads to improved work can be offered by any institution that invests in a high-quality education. Are we prepared to follow the evidence?