Tell them how they're doing - before, during and after

Tutors urged to improve assessment and feedback to help students adjust. Sam Creighton writes

February 2, 2012

If universities are to start putting students "at the heart of the system" as the government has encouraged them to, one area that they will have to address is the long-standing dissatisfaction with assessment and feedback.

According to last year's National Student Survey, this was the area in which students were least satisfied, with just 68 per cent saying they were content.

Now, academics at Edge Hill University and Liverpool Hope University have argued that significant reform is needed to the way institutions support students, particularly in their vital first year.

In a paper entitled "Reconceptualising assessment feedback: A key to improving student learning?", published in the latest issue of Studies in Higher Education, the researchers say that a "fault line" exists between secondary and tertiary education.

In particular, they say that young people develop a set of expectations about academic support as a result of their experience at school, but when they get to university, these expectations are shattered by what is on offer.

To address this, the authors advise that the first year of higher education should be viewed as a transitional stage between the supported learning provided in secondary education and the independence currently expected at university.

During this year, students should be given "preparatory" guidance before an assignment, "in-task" guidance during the project and "performance feedback" at the end.

The authors, Chris Beaumont and Michelle O'Doherty of Edge Hill and Lee Shannon of Liverpool Hope, say universities should change their approach from isolated "events" of summative performance feedback to a continual "guidance process".

This should include a greater emphasis on verbal and one-to-one interaction between tutor and student, they say. They also suggest that feedback should be standardised to a greater degree.

The study is based on an analysis of data collected from focus groups and surveys of students and teachers at three schools and three colleges, as well as first-year undergraduates and tutors from three universities in different disciplines and at different points throughout the year.

Mr Beaumont told Times Higher Education that the systems in place in secondary education were unlikely to change, and so "if schools won't change, then the alternative is for universities to treat the first term/year as a transition, an extended induction to teach students how to become self-regulated learners, not simply to demand it of them".

However, he added that this would happen only if academic staff embraced the idea. He described the reluctance of many tutors to accept drafts of assignments from first-year undergraduates as "indefensible".

"These are novice students, yet 'expert' students - studying for a PhD - spend their lives submitting drafts for review by their supervisors and no one complains about that. Surely novices need more support," he said.

Usman Ali, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, added: "Induction should be much more than just the first two weeks of the first year. It should be integrated through the year and all (subsequent) years of study."

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