Student Experience Seminar 2016: ‘Fed up with Feedback’

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Dr Steph Fuller reflects on what we can learn from the 2016 Student Experience Seminar & student views on feedback.

Queen Mary Students’ Union’s Student Experience Seminar for 2016 was focused on the topic of feedback – something discussed here in a previous blog by Agnes Lech.  The seminar presented the findings of surveys and focus groups conducted by the QMSU aimed at exploring students’ expectations and experiences of feedback at QMUL.

QMSU highlighted a number of areas where they found a mismatch between student expectations and the reality of giving and receiving feedback at QMUL:

  • Time to receive feedback – students wanted to receive feedback more quickly, as the reality of feedback timing at university was very different from their expectations
  • The person providing feedback – students wanted feedback from their lecturer, not from teaching assistants
  • The form feedback takes – students wanted to receive comments written onto hard copies of their work, rather than feedback sheets or templates
  • The amount of feedback and personalisation – students wanted more feedback, throughout their courses and for feedback to be personalised
  • Lack of exam feedback – students would like to receive feedback on final summative exams as well as coursework

The need to manage student expectations through providing clear and consistent information about feedback practices at QMUL is clearly apparent; students need to know that providing high quality feedback on large pieces of work will take some time.  They should be given a realistic date for the return of feedback up front, which lecturers should then adhere to.  Students also need to understand from the outset of their course that teaching assistants will in many cases be involved in marking their work.  Perhaps academic staff could be clear that these teaching assistants do so under their supervision and with their support.  Academics could emphasise to their students that they also have much to gain from being taught and assessed by PhD students who are often working at the cutting edge of research in their disciplines.

QMUL’s guidance for staff around feedback practices (the QMUL Code of Practice on Assessment and Feedback, and the QMUL Good Practice Guide on Assessment and Feedback) was questioned throughout the presentation, as some of these policies and advice seemed to run counter to student expectations and desires.

For example, on the issue of the format, the Good Practice Guide states:

Academic staff should be cautious about writing comments directly on student work. If these are well-written they can be helpful, but they are often written in haste and in brief. They can, especially if they are not discussed in the formal feedback, confuse and de-motivate students. Comments given should be coherent and structured where possible, and it is recommended that feedback forms (examples of which can be found at the back of this Code) should be developed by all Schools, Departments and Institutes. (p. 23)

The rationale behind this advice seems clear; comments written on a script can be illegible, they might be confusing if not related to the marking criteria, or could make it difficult for students to understand how their work is being judged.  However, the students consulted in QMSU’s surveys had no positive comments to make about feedback forms or more structured forms feedback.  Just seven percent of those surveyed agreed that a feedback sheet alone would be useful.

Perhaps there is a bigger issue around students’ understanding of marking and feedback processes at play here.  Maybe if they had a clearer understanding of marking criteria they would better appreciate feedback that points them to broad areas of the curriculum or skills they need to develop, rather than just highlighting spelling mistakes or praising particular points on their essay or exam script.  Indeed, only nine percent of students surveyed by QMSU reported that they fully understood their marking criteria.

Student misunderstanding of assessment and feedback process was an issue that seemed to be echoed in staff responses to the presentation.  Several colleagues reported making huge efforts to provide multiple feedback opportunities to students which very few then took up.  Others shared experiences of low numbers of students looking at feedback on summative work provided via QMplus; the numbers plummeted even further when the marks (without feedback) had first been made available elsewhere.  So perhaps the bigger mismatch is not between student expectations and reality, but between student wants and actions; students want more feedback, but are they motivated to collect it or act on it, and do they know what to do with it?

If staff are to keep on providing more and better quality feedback, how can we ensure that students do more with it?  As well as tackling some of the issues raised by the student surveys, perhaps we should also be looking to develop students’ understanding of their role in feedback and assessment processes; how can we help students engage with feedback as a dialogue and as a two-way process?

Steph Fuller, February 2016