A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend a Feedback and Assessment event organised by the Moray House School of Education and the Institute for Academic Development. There’s something lovely about events like this where colleagues in the University gather together to reflect on aspects of their academic practice. There’s the sense of the shared mission that together we can make things better for our students (and possibly ourselves), and often there’s an emotional comfort involved in having the time and the space to reflect on the things that we’ve tried in our own practice, and that have worked to a greater or lesser extent. And, as Rowena Arshad put it so persuasively in her opening comments, there’s the opportunity to learn from one another, to be ‘unashamed about stealing good practice from one another’.
The day itself was a mixture of keynote speakers and workshops. Here, I’m simply going to pull out some of the comments by three speakers who grabbed my attention and said things that I found inspiring, or useful or controversial. And there were a few controversial things, not least in the spirited talk given by Sue Rigby. For Sue, innovative teaching should be about ‘risk taking’ and ‘experimenting’; it should be ‘more responsive’ and ‘more ephemeral’. And for the ‘shake up of the system’ that she wants to see to work we have to create conditions in which students can fail. This might seem counterintuitive. But for Sue, failing is the key process that we need to foster because it provides us with opportunities to give students (valuable) feedback on their work and it encourages them to become more resilient learners. Ultimately, taking risks in teaching, and allowing students to make mistakes along their learning journey, takes us to a place where our students become ‘highly enabled agents of learning’. And what could be more inspiring than that?
I like a good example of the innovative and creative things that colleagues are doing to provide better feedback to students. One highlight for me was provided by Hugh Richards who spoke about a piece of low stakes assessment he used with his PGTs. In short, students were asked to write a critical appraisal of an article. But instead of simply getting feedback on their own work, he put students into tutorials groups where they had to read and rank the reviews submitted by their peers (this was done anonymously). The tutorial centred on two things – getting students to understand more about the content by reading the other reviews, and encouraging them to think like a marker by ranking the scripts. For Hugh, this was a much more inspiring way to give feedback than simply returning individual scripts with a mark and a comment. It was lively, engaging and opened up a space to have a dialogue about the feedback process. It is precisely this space for dialogue that is so often missing from our feedback practice.
And when it comes to key note events I like a good speaker who can tell a story that hooks you in and leaves you wanting to know what happens next. One such speaker was Hazel Marzetti, who talked about some of the difficulties we often encounter in getting students to engage with assessment and feedback. It’s fairly common to hear our colleagues, perhaps even ourselves, bemoaning the fact that some students don’t even read feedback let alone use it. What I liked about Hazel’s contribution was how she guided us through some of the reasons for this from the point of view of the students. She cautioned us to remember that one bad incident can colour a student’s every future encounter with feedback. She drew attention to the negative emotions that many students experience when they get a (bad) mark which they simply don’t want to know about because they don’t want to admit they need to do something about it or because it ruptures their sense of their own identity. And she drew on evidence to suggest that students don’t always rate us as markers – there can be a perception that marking is a grade lottery with inconsistencies in our practices, and students struggle when there is a lack of clear instructions about what is expected of them. I felt very humbled by Hazel’s presentation which touched on students as real human beings who are often bruised by our assessment and feedback practices.
Engaging students with feedback is a tricky business. This event gave us the opportunity to pause for thought, and to learn from one another, with a view to improving the experience for our students. And there’s no denying that this can be a rollercoaster of a journey. But, like Sue said, we should have the autonomy and the agency to try out new things, to be more responsive in our feedback and assessment practices. And if we get it wrong? Well then we create the space to have a dialogue about the process and we use the feedback to try again. It is not only students who must be willing to fail and to become more resilient learners.