Lecturers' feedback efforts 'misguided'

Students need to play a more active role in assessment, an expert claims. Olga Wojtas reports

July 31, 2008

Lecturers' efforts to help their students by providing detailed written feedback are "completely misguided", an expert on student learning warned this week.

David Nicol, deputy director of the Centre for Academic Practice and Learning Enhancement at the University of Strathclyde, said universities were increasingly alarmed by students' dissatisfaction with the quality of their feedback, which has been highlighted by the National Student Survey.

But the focus by lecturers on improving written feedback, with more considered and detailed comments, fails to address the problem.

"The whole approach we are taking to this is completely misguided," said Professor Nicol, who was due to discuss his conclusions at the 33rd Improving University Teaching conference at Strathclyde this week.

In a previous era, students would get feedback, discuss it with their tutor, revise their work and have further discussions and feedback in an ongoing dialogue, Professor Nicol said. "But in a mass higher education system, written feedback, which is essentially a monologue, is being asked to do the work of dialogue," he said. "If I've got 100 students, how would I ever know what stage of development each is at to target feedback? To individualise it is completely impossible."

The point of feedback is to get students to take action, he went on. And they should not have to rely on a single source of feedback, their tutor, but have different sources.

"If I write an article for a journal and three reviewers write back all making the same (criticism), I know there's a problem. If they all say something different, I have to make a judgment myself. Apart from The Open University, I've never seen any institution write guidelines for new lecturers on how they should deliver feedback. All the research shows that students often don't understand the comments."

Tutors should encourage much more self-assessment and peer assessment, encouraging students to play a more active role rather than simply delivering more written comments, he said.

Tutors could ask students to rephrase the goals of their assignments in their own words, or get them to identify criteria themselves, by comparing good and bad assignments from previous cohorts and explaining which are better and why. Students could also be put in small groups to share and discuss the feedback from tutors.

"A focus on skills is more effective than comments that just tell them that something is right or wrong," he said. "My argument is that we should start this in the first year, asking students to make judgments all the time through their work - and then give feedback on these judgments, not necessarily the work itself."

• The University of Kingston's psychology department will be excluded from this year's NSS, after lecturers were found to have pressured students into inflating their scores.

Fiona Barlow-Brown, a senior lecturer in psychology, was taped telling students: "If you think something is a four, give it a five because that's what everybody else is doing." She added that the students would not get jobs if the university came bottom in the league tables.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said this week: "I can confirm that we have decided, and told the university, that their data for psychology will not be published."

Times Higher Education has seen minutes from a Kingston psychology department meeting on 3 June in which Gail Cunningham, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences, is reported as saying that the department is seen as "dysfunctional" inside the university.

olgawojtas@tsleducation.com.

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