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March 21, 2013

The Fabulous Feedback Frenzy

Feedback is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing university students, teachers and managers in today’s new tuition fee era. Warwick is certainly no exception to this trend. The recent institution-wide Fabulous Feedback competition prompted a huge response from students in all faculties, demonstrating the depth of feeling about feedback at the University. The close nature of the competition, amongst tutors in the Arts Faculty in particular, also underlined the extent of good feedback practice already in place at Warwick. Likewise, the £1000 prize money for the winner in each faculty emphasised the University’s commitment to promoting and disseminating good practice.

The French department emerged from the competition with four tutors in the Arts Faculty top ten, with my colleague Professor Seán Hand named the winner with most student nominations. Like my co-nominees, I was surprised, if also delighted, to have been named in the top ten, and have since been approached by colleagues in pursuit of some secret feedback formula. This has provoked much soul-searching on my part; is there a secret method for feedback? And what constitutes feedback in the first place?

An informative starting point is the Warwick Student Community Statement, agreed between the University and the Students’ Union in October 2012. The Statement recorded the importance of feedback in the student experience and committed to:

Relevant and meaningful feedback on [students’] work in a variety of formats that will help [students’] development’

Warwick’s definition of feedback is therefore multi-faceted. Teachers’ feedback should be relevant to the assessment or task undertaken, it should have some meaningful purpose and should point towards areas of development. Few reflective and motivated teachers would take issue with any of these points. We would no doubt wish to receive relevant feedback with clear areas for development on our own teaching or research.

Clarity is, in fact, a worthy aim for any feedback. Like many other professions, academia is teeming with jargon of one kind or another. While it is not always possible to eradicate jargon completely from feedback, it should be minimised. It would, for instance, be counter-productive to assume that a languages student who has made a number of basic grammatical errors is well-versed in technical grammatical terms. While in no way advocating a ‘toning down’ approach to teaching and learning at university level, at the very least feedback should be accessible; to use complex terminology is more likely to obfuscate a problematic area for a student rather than aid understanding.

The second strand to the University’s commitment to feedback revolves around the term ‘meaningfulness.’ It is not unreasonable to assume that ‘meaningful’ feedback involves some form of end goal, that it serves a practical purpose. A common feedback approach, and one which I employ consistently in my own teaching, is the tripartite technique in which the teacher (or other feedback facilitator) first lists the areas of success in the assessment, then details areas for improvement or development, and finally issues the reasons to be confident for the future. Of all three sections, it is the second which has most relevance to the issue of ‘meaningfulness.’ Simply listing all the areas in which the assessment has aroused cause for concern is not in itself meaningful feedback. Rather, what the recipient of the feedback (in our case the student) wants is to receive some practical tips on how to address these causes for concern. This might include providing references to appropriate literature, including text books or other secondary material, or to relevant lecture notes to enable the student to develop their work ahead of the next assignment. Meaningful feedback does not necessarily mean providing step-by-step instructions for students to overcome problem areas; rather, through signposting appropriate learning materials, the feedback process remains an active, rather than passive, experience in what is sometimes called ‘feed forward.’

It is an all-too-common experience for university teachers to witness students simply note the mark for their assignment and ignore the accompanying feedback. One means of overcoming this demoralising trend is to list the mark after any feedback; while no means failsafe, it at least incentivises the student to read through feedback before looking at the mark. Through providing a series of scaffolded, practical measures for students to develop their work, without offering excessive explanations—and thus avoiding the pitfall of working for the student—feedback provides a meaningful plan for the future which maintains the student’s attention more than simply stating the areas of difficulty.

The final aspect of Warwick’s feedback commitment which merits discussion is the suggestion that feedback may be provided in ‘a variety of formats.’ Good feedback need not be delivered in a cutting-edge manner; indeed, some excellent feedback practitioners within the French department continue to handwrite their feedback. Nonetheless, it is important that feedback is accessible and, at a very basic level, legible. Providing feedback at the very end of an assignment, on the final page of an essay, for example, goes some way to ensuring it is digested by students. However, in an era where nearly every student in the lecture theatre or seminar room possesses at least a laptop, if not also a smart phone and a tablet, feedback can also take on digital forms. At a recent Window on Teaching event at the Teaching Grid, a particularly pertinent form of digital feedback was showcased by Russell Stannard, Principal Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Applied Linguistics.

Russell’s promotion of screen capture feedback offered an insight into employing Jing and Camtasia in a language-learning setting. While the length of screen captures on Jing is limited to just five minutes, Camtasia allows for prolonged feedback. Russell noted that one of the limits to the screen capture approach for language teaching is the temptation to focus too much on surface errors rather than deeper areas for development. What the capture software does offer, however, is the possibility to directly engage the student in a way that written feedback cannot. This helps to overcome the issue of ignoring feedback; if students are obliged to watch a five-minute screen capture, they might perhaps absorb some of the constructive comments. Having trialled Jing with a group of second-year undergraduates on the core French language module, this feedback method has struck me as immediately more interactive than traditional feedback. Nonetheless, teachers may find that they are obliged to read through the piece of work before recording the screen capture. Marking work ‘live’ requires a good deal more thought than working through an assignment having already highlighted areas of success or difficulty. Screen capture certainly offers an interactive feedback method, and its audio-visual nature is more striking than written notes, but it is certainly not without its limitations.

There is clearly no definitive method or technique for feedback, and this blog post has not intended to offer one. Through engaging with technology and through striving to provide feedback with tangible, practical means for development, however, teachers can go some way to meeting the reasonable expectations of students in the current higher education landscape. The continued dissemination of best practice across the institution—whether through Window on Teaching events or through initiatives like the ‘Fabulous Feedback’ competition—will also continue to drive up feedback standards at Warwick.

Internet resources on higher education feedback:

Series of best practice guides available via the Learning and Development Centre

Assessment and feedback resources at Queen’s University Belfast

University of Bradford assessment and feedback pages (includes some references to literature in the field)

February 18, 2013

Engaging students: beyond assessment and towards discovery

I recently attended an excellent Window on Teaching session at the Library’s Teaching Grid presented by Nick Barker, Head of the Chemistry department’s Outreach programme and WATE winner, which addressed one of the trickiest questions in university teaching: student engagement and participation. The title of Nick’s presentation: ‘Do I need to know this?’ was central to the session. While Nick provided a brilliant synthesis of some of the reasons behind this all-too-common question, he also encouraged participants to think of ways to overcome this barrier to student learning. It occurred to me that while the current British (or at least English and Welsh) school system encourages continual assessment from the age of 11 (with other external tests from a far younger age), this is perhaps not the only reason for some students’ somewhat selective view of exactly what material is necessary.

Indeed, some of the problem arguably lies with the way in which subjects are taught at all levels, but especially once students arrive at university, where the ‘curriculum’ to use the term loosely, is more-or-less devised by the teacher. I wonder if, as a teacher, one continually reminds students of the assessment, one is perhaps more likely to find that students are less engaged with material which may not be assessed at the end of the module/course. Are there, though, some subjects or methods of teaching subjects, which can overcome the student emphasis on assessment ahead of learning for the sheer sake of learning?

I have found in my own teaching that a combination of controversy and multimedia can help to engage students with aspects of a topic that are unlikely to crop up in any exam or essay question. I consider myself to be extremely lucky to be a specialist in a 'popular' area of the broad French Studies discipline; modern history and politics modules at Warwick and elsewhere tend to recruit very well, in part because of their relevance to the modern-day. This perhaps already gives me something of an advantage when trying to engage students; contemporary references to events of the last seventy or so years of French history are not hard to find. Like many teachers, I also strive to give students as much exposure as possible to my favoured subjects. Enthusiasm for the subject matter as a whole (or in my case the seventy year period I tend to cover in my teaching) is one immediate way of ensuring students do not focus exclusively on the issue of assessment.

It helps, however, to employ additional techniques alongside this enthusiastic approach. I regularly use film in my teaching to give students greater exposure to a topic. Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide a different perspective on a subject while also encouraging students to think beyond the material covered in a lecture. While secondary material can sometimes prove ‘dry’ and un-inspirational, film can, in the words of a former student, ‘bring the subject to life.’ Another method I have trialled recently is the use of primary sources such as campaign leaflets and webpages of candidates in last year’s French presidential elections. While it is unlikely that a particular candidate’s oratory style or views on popular culture will form part of any assessment, I have found that such materials encourage students to take a genuine interest in French politics as a whole.

I also wonder if there are some subjects whose sheer controversy or, in the sciences, explosiveness or capacity to change our lives, simply overcome any barriers to engagement, not least the ‘do I need to know this?’ dilemma. In my own field, topics like the Vichy regime’s complicity in the Holocaust and the subsequent collective amnesia which followed, tend to captivate students for their sheer controversy. On two occasions this academic year I have taught the Algerian War of Independence. For all students concerned the trauma of the ‘events’ in Algeria and the diversity of the participants, proved to be fascinating. For the Algerian War, as for other topics, I have always employed film as a means of engaging students, but it is consistently the controversial and bloody nature of the events (which I repeatedly highlight in lectures and in seminar discussions) that encourage students to really grapple with the subject for the sake of learning.

While I am not suggesting, of course, that teachers never refer to assessment, since it is undoubtedly important for students to know how they will be assessed, the adoption of teaching materials like film, along with an emphasis on the relevance or impact of a subject on society, can encourage students to look beyond their essay or exam and to examine the subject out of intellectual curiosity. Universities should, as Thomas Docherty has noted, be governed by ‘actions of discovery.’ Through offering students the chance to investigate subjects without the constant reminder of assessment, and through employing a range of teaching resources, perhaps we might overcome the ‘do I need to know this?’ issue highlighted by Nick Barker and help to facilitate some actions of discovery for our students.


Thomas Docherty, For the University (London: Bloomsbury, 2011)

February 04, 2013

Thinking about assessment

Assessment remains a hot topic for debate and development and here I’ve included links to a recent article from the Guardian and publication from the HEA that made me stop and think. So here are just a few of my thoughts…

University degrees: our arcane system of firsts, seconds and thirds (Guardian, January 2013)

This is an interesting piece from the Guardian that raises the issue of norm or criterion referenced assessment. Should be given to students for achievement in relation to their peers or against a set of given criteria.

I am of the opinion that it should be the latter, believing that students shouldn’t miss out on getting a first because the group as the whole is achieving higher grades. Imagine how upset you’d be to find out if you’d just delayed your entry to University by a year that you’d have got a first because your mark would have put you in the top x per cent, but this year you’re going to miss out.

I can see the benefits of norm referenced assessment if all prospective employees were being drawn from the same cohort of students (same year, same course, same University) but surely as soon as you move beyond this group then norm referenced is, well no longer norm referenced? I’d be interested to hear more from others about the potential merits of this system – am I missing something?

A Marked Improvement (HEA, October 2012)

There are two key points I wanted to highlight from this document..

Firstly one of the tenets highlights that assessment for learning is key: assessment should be about supporting students to achieve high standards of learning. Assessment needs to provide a space for students to demonstrate their learning and support them to improve.

  • Surely this suggests that more students achieving a 2:1 (reported in the Guardian article) is a sign that we’re improving our assessment for learning rather than a cause for concern?

Secondly the tenets suggest that assessment takes place within a community of practice and students and staff work together to construct an understanding of the standards. Dialogue within this community can help to ensure that assessment is an integral part of any course and support students to develop their own understanding of the standards to which they aspire. In addition assessment relies on staff making professional judgements which can’t always be articulated and it’s this professional judgement that provides room for students to excel beyond our expectations.

  • To what extent do we make space for this dialogue to take place when introducing assessment to students?

Re-blogged from

September 04, 2012

Teaching Development Grants Available from HEA

Writing about web page

The Higher Education Academy have announced their departmental round of grants which is open to single departments in HEIs. Grants will be awarded to projects that encourage cooperation between colleagues to support the enhancement of learning and teaching.
Key themes for this academic year are assessment and feedback and flexible learning. Projects in these areas will be awarded 75% of available funding while the remaining 25% is dedicated to an open call for innovative pedagogic projects.
Projects will run for 15 months and applications may request up to £30,000 from the HEA.
The deadline for submissions is 5pm on Thursday 27 September.

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