'Agenda for change' aims to combat feedback myths

Lobby group calls for a 'fundamental rethink' of student assessment. Rebecca Attwood reports

October 15, 2009

Feedback given by tutors to students too often falls short and is founded on "myths, misconceptions and mistaken assumptions", a group of academics has declared.

More than 20 educationists have signed an "agenda for change" on feedback in higher education, claiming that universities' methods are often "not fit for purpose".

The action comes as the National Union of Students steps up its campaign for better feedback, launching a form for students to attach to work when they hand it in.

In a move that is bound to irritate some lecturers, students will tick boxes to say whether they want their feedback in written, verbal, electronic or audio form. Tutors are also asked whether they are available for one-to-one feedback.

Since the National Student Survey (NSS) was launched in 2005, students have given assessment and feedback the lowest scores of any category.

In the last NSS, just 65 per cent of students in England were satisfied with this area, compared with 83 per cent who were happy with the overall quality of teaching.

The "agenda for change" has been drawn up by 23 academics, calling themselves the Osney Grange Group, and makes the case for a fundamental rethink.

It says there is currently too great a reliance on tutor-driven written feedback rather than proper tutor-student relationships. Feedback is too often seen as a "product" rather than a "process" that is integral to learning.

Margaret Price, director of Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange at Oxford Brookes University's Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), and a signatory of the agenda, said: "Too often, when universities respond to NSS scores on feedback, there is a focus on easily measurable metrics and standardised approaches.

"Our research shows that what students value more than anything is a dialogue about their feedback with their tutors.

"Dialogue with tutors and peers helps them to better interpret feedback, which is often ambiguous. Feedback needs to have a long-term relational dimension to it."

Signatories to the document also include Sue Bloxham, head of the Centre for the Development of Learning and Teaching at the University of Cumbria, Brenda Smith, senior associate at the Higher Education Academy, and Mantz Yorke, visiting professor of education at Lancaster University.

Kay Sambell, director of assessment for learning enhancement in the CETL at Northumbria University, and another signatory of the document, said one persistent myth was that tutors were the only ones who could give feedback.

She argued it was important for students to learn to evaluate their own work and that of their peers.

"We run mentoring schemes, where more experienced students support the learning of less experienced ones. It gets the mentors thinking quite deeply about judging their own work, so there are also benefits to them that come about quite naturally," she said.

Professor Price agreed: "If students become dependent on feedback from staff to tell them how they are doing, they are not learning to make decisions themselves."

Mark Huxham, reader in environmental biology at Edinburgh Napier University, said feedback was not at its most effective if it was simply "bolted on" to the end of a module.

"Feedback starts right at the beginning of a course and is not just limited to formal assessment," he said.

"I use 'quick and dirty' methods of evaluating student understanding in lectures - for example, I use something called 'boot-grit' feedback in lectures.

"The metaphor concerns when you are walking along and get irritating grit in your shoe. It may not prevent you from making your journey, but it will annoy you.

"It is like those thoughts at the end of a lecture or seminar - 'No, I didn't quite get that.' I invite students to fill in boot-grit feedback, which they give me in the boot-grit box."

He said it was understandable that senior managers "see a problem and look for a technical fix".

"A classic one would be: 'You must return feedback within X amount of time', or 'There must be X volume of feedback'. I can understand the impulse, but I'm confident it won't fix the problem."

The NUS feedback form will be sent out to student course representatives and student unions around the country this week.

Aaron Porter, NUS vice-president for higher education, said it was a practical way of improving feedback and highlights the sort of "model feedback students should be receiving".

"It demonstrates that constructive and helpful feedback doesn't need to be any more time-consuming than existing practice," he said.

"We hope that the form will ensure that staff and students alike continue to consider how improvements can be made to the feedback provided to students."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

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