More, faster, face-to-face: NUS demands on feedback

Charter calls for students to determine the format of tutors' responses. Hannah Fearn reports

September 16, 2010

Students would be able to choose whether to receive feedback on their work verbally, electronically or in written form under a new National Union of Students charter.

The document, launched at the Quality Matters for Students conference in London on 15 September, also calls for students to be given feedback within three weeks, for lecturers to provide more detailed feedback on examination performance, and for greater use of "innovative" assessment techniques.

It adds that students should receive face-to-face feedback on at least the first piece of work for assessment set in each academic year.

Last month, the results of the latest National Student Survey indicated that assessment and feedback remain the areas with which students are least satisfied.

However, Patrick Bailey, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Keele University and a National Teaching Fellow, said it would be impractical to allow students to choose the format of feedback.

"The tutor would usually have a preferred mechanism that matches the assessment. The varied types of assessment in the sciences make this a particular issue," he said.

Dave Allen, principal lecturer in the creative arts, film and media at the University of Portsmouth, agreed that it would be a "burden too far" to expect lecturers to offer a choice of feedback for every individual, but it could be a good idea for classes to discuss their preferred format for individual assignments.

Dr Allen said that time constraints limit the amount of face-to-face feedback that lecturers are able to give.

"Face-to-face feedback is one of the things sacrificed with the huge rise in student numbers," he said.

"You can make academics do all kinds of things against their judgement or wishes, but you can't put more hours in the day. If face-to-face is compulsory, what goes?"

In a recent NUS survey, 90 per cent of students say they would like to have feedback on their performance in exams. Only 22 per cent say they receive feedback from tutors within two weeks of submitting their work, while 7 per cent have to wait seven weeks or longer.

Professor Bailey said it was true that universities "could do better" on feedback. It was "reasonable" for students to expect personalised feedback within three weeks and, where appropriate, faster feedback delivered to groups.

But he said students do not always appreciate that a workshop focused on a particular assignment is a form of feedback.

"Tutors are often frustrated that attendance at feedback seminars is poor, or that marked work is not collected," he said.

The NUS document calls for students to be allowed to submit work electronically. "While this will not be possible in every case, this increased flexibility will support part-time and distance learners as well as other non-traditional students," it says.

Greater use of formative assessment that does not count towards degree classifications is also recommended, with a commitment to anonymous marking on work that counts towards degrees.

"Anonymous marking provides reassurance for students and staff against the perception of discrimination," the charter claims.

Students should also "be supported to critique their own work" and helped to understand marking criteria, the NUS advises.

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