Misunderstood? Try a more positive approach

December 19, 2003

If students never read your feedback, it may be because they simply can't interpret it, says Margaret Price.

Most lecturers find marking a pain but recognise its value in providing feedback for students. Feedback is a key part of learning and yet I often have boxes of uncollected coursework in my office at the end of the year.

Many hours of my time went into writing the detailed feedback on that work, so I have to ask myself: was it worth it? Many students seem interested only in their mark. Their apparent lack of interest, however, does not tally with research findings that show students want more feedback than they are given. So perhaps the problem does not lie with the students but rather with the way we explain the process or our assumptions about students' ability to use feedback.

Our research at Oxford Brookes Business School, along with other studies, has found that students have real problems recognising and understanding feedback. It may be for reasons as simple as illegible handwriting or the use of jargon but, in essence, it is a classic communication problem: students do not interpret what we say in the way that we intend. One underlying factor is that they have little understanding of assessment standards and processes. Our feedback is often couched in negative terms - what they have not done, what they have done badly - and does not provide many clues about what they should have done or what they should do in future. It is largely because we teachers have real difficulty articulating standards - we hold them in our heads as tacit knowledge. It is much easier to say what is wrong with the work than what we are looking for. Transferring that tacit knowledge requires a different method of communication to clarify those standards for students. We need to think about how students come to understand what is expected of them in assessment. This means we have to find ways of increasing the transparency of assessment and to invite students to take part.

Before hands are thrown up in horror, I am not proposing we hand over the assessment process, but the sooner students have a clear idea of the standards they are aiming for, the sooner they can accurately assess their own work and the sooner they will interpret feedback in the way we need them to and recognise its usefulness. How can we make the process clearer? Workshops to discuss assessment criteria and standards, peer and self-marking exercises, providing exemplars of previous student work have all been found to be successful and have a measurable impact on student achievement.

Will gaining an insight into standards mean that students will be motivated to collect their written feedback? Not necessarily - they still need guidance about how to use it. At Oxford Brookes, first-year students are taken through a process to help them understand assessment criteria, and when they receive feedback on their coursework they attend a workshop designed to give them tools to help them understand and use it. Students "decode" feedback by translating it into their own words. They then compare feedback with their own self-assessment, evaluate it and benchmark their work against an A-grade piece.

Even though the process has raised some issues that need to be explored further, it is to be hoped that we have provided a model for students that demonstrates the value of feedback. Taking this approach provides a win-win situation. Students are no longer in the dark about what they are aiming for; the feedback we give will be more meaningful and useful, and students can engage with it. And perhaps, over time, we will need to spend less time giving feedback, perhaps just commenting on the student's own self-assessment.

Feedback still has an important role to play in deepening students'

understanding of the subject, the standards and their learning, but we do not have the resources to keep providing feedback that students do not understand and do not know how to use. Designing better processes that help students to understand assessment standards and to engage with and use feedback should improve their learning and get uncollected assignments off my office floor.

Margaret Price is head of learning and teaching at the Business School, Oxford Brookes University, and a national teaching fellow.

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