The majority of practitioners working in higher education would agree that one of the principal aims of a university education is to develop students’ independence, self-awareness and self-regulation.
Being positioned as passive recipients of their lecturers’ feedback does nothing to promote the development of these crucial graduate attributes; such sustainable gains require the student to play an active role in seeking, generating, accessing and engaging with feedback opportunities from multiple sources, via processes such as peer assessment and self-evaluation.
Why, then, does the UK’s National Student Survey evaluate the “quality” of assessment and feedback using a completely contrasting set of criteria that promotes a passive, transmission-focused approach? Why are students asked to evaluate not the extent to which they have been able to access and use feedback to support their learning but, rather, the quality of feedback comments that they have received?
Moreover, if the NSS sends the implicit message that this model of feedback is the one that we value, why shouldn’t students themselves internalise this as their own model of the feedback process? Indeed, many institutions model their own course evaluation instruments on the NSS questions. So from the very start of their degrees, students are being invited to see themselves as consumers of feedback comments: a mindset that arguably limits the potential impact of feedback on learning gain.
Nor are students overly impressed with our provision of feedback on these terms. Since the inception of the NSS in 2005, the vast majority of institutions see their students’ satisfaction with assessment and feedback lagging behind satisfaction with other areas of the educational experience. The results for the revised 2017 survey were no exception.
So what is to be done? One response would be to develop our feedback practices with a primary focus on improving students’ satisfaction with them. When we run workshops and teaching sessions discussing innovations in assessment and feedback practices, we are frequently asked whether particular innovations improve NSS scores. Should this be our primary focus? Or should we be more concerned about whether the innovation enhances students’ use of the feedback and learning gain, even if that does not immediately translate into better NSS scores?
The NSS was reformed for 2017, but the section on assessment and feedback saw only minor semantic changes. For example, question 11 changed from “I have received detailed comments” to “I have received useful comments”. But this tweak was a missed opportunity to promote a sector-wide shift from a transmission-focused to a learning-focused model of feedback. The main issue is not whether comments are perceived to be useful rather than detailed. The bigger problem is the use of the term “received”, which primes a transmission-focused mindset. Students potentially have access to a limitless pool of feedback opportunities during their time at university, but this is a resource to be drawn down and implemented through a process ultimately driven by the student themselves, not something to be merely “received”.
Of course, making amendments to NSS questions is unlikely on its own to shift the dominant model of feedback in higher education; that is likely to require broader dialogue between educators and students, initiated at the very beginning of students’ programmes. However, it would send a powerful signal to both parties about their respective roles if the question were, instead, to be something along the lines of: “I was supported to gather, engage with and use the feedback that I needed to help me in my learning.”
Promoting a model that places emphasis on access to, rather than reception of, feedback is likely to be beneficial to student learning for several reasons. One is that it communicates that feedback can come from multiple sources: educators, peers, learning advisers, librarians and even students’ own internal self-assessment.
In addition, such an emphasis encourages students to consider when and where they need feedback, and to seek it in those situations. This is an important element of self-regulation. In the absence of such an approach, we are likely to be fighting a losing battle, in terms of both students’ sustainable learning and our own NSS ratings.
Naomi Winstone is a senior lecturer in the department of higher education at the University of Surrey. Edd Pitt is a lecturer in higher education and PGCHE programme director at the University of Kent.