Enhancing assessment and feedback: it’s about communication

feedbackIn early 2014 a small band of academics from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, and with a shared interest in enhancing assessment and feedback, began a reading group to further their understanding of the assessment and feedback literature.  On the basis that there is more to enhancing assessment and feedback than meets the eye our initial readings were chosen with a focus on student and staff engagement in higher education and on how this might have an impact on assessment and feedback culture.  Various themes emerged from the readings and from the spirited conversations we had about them.

One key theme centred on the alienation that students, and also staff, can feel when they are confronted with new experiences.  This might come from feeling lost in an institution where both the language and ways of doing things are unfamiliar, including for example the language of assessment criteria and expectations (Mann, 2001).  And this led to discussion of another theme – the need to form communities of practice where staff and students can learn together the ways of thinking and doing in their chosen discipline and gain shared understanding of what assessment is for and about (Wenger, 2010).

time-for-changeWe carried the idea of communities of practice further when considering how it sometimes takes a radical, yet nuanced, approach to elicit change by people who are both fully part of a community or organisation but who can also see from the outsider’s perspective what needs to change (Myerson and Scully, 1995). In higher education, these may be people who are part of the ‘system’ but who also want to advance and update it, perhaps by transforming outdated assessment practices that have become part of the ‘system’.


Carrying on the theme of challenging traditional assessment paradigms we delved into Mantz Yorke’s paper on summative assessment and ‘the measurement fallacy’ (2011).  This paper challenges our reliance on objective measures of student assessment, in particular grading of work, by arguing that we should instead rely on the arguably more subjective but valuable professional judgement of assessors.  The reading of this paper, as one might imagine, prompted a lot of lively discussion and debate within the group.

The assessment and feedback group has now been meeting regularly for just under a year and along the way has garnered further interest through encounters and discussions with colleagues and the numbers attending have grown.  It has also evolved from simply reviewing the literature together and sharing reflections and now provides a forum in which to meet with colleagues from across the University and share ideas and experiences of assessment and feedback.  We have heard presentations from colleagues about their work or their vision for assessment and feedback in the University.  I personally believe that the most valuable thing about the group is the communication it engenders.  Both the discussions of the literature and presentations by colleagues have led to some very interesting and at times surprising conversations.  It has also allowed us to link up what different people across the University are doing and put people in touch with one another.

The most recent paper covered was that by David Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick (2006) on the seven principles of good feedback practice.  The premise of this paper is that formative assessment can help students to become self-directed learners by teaching them what quality performance looks like and helping them to gauge how their work compares with this, with a view to improving their performance. And crucial parts of this process include encouraging dialogue, positive beliefs and self-reflection around learning.  It struck me afterwards that these are some of the principles that we had in mind when starting this group.  An opportunity to understand what quality means when it comes to assessment and feedback and how to emulate it yes, but perhaps more importantly a space that encourages dialogue and positive beliefs about assessment and feedback.  My belief is that there is much good practice going on across the University that could inspire and guide others which is not shared as widely as it could be.  More opportunities for sharing within and across the disciplines are needed.  We hope that the assessment and feedback group will continue to evolve to be a space in which to share some of this good practice as well as a place to learn about issues relating to assessment and feedback, to develop and swap ideas and perhaps even to do work on it together.

The assessment and feedback group meets monthly to either discuss a journal article or to hear presentations on colleagues’ work around assessment and feedback and I would encourage anyone with an interest in this area to sign up to the mailing list and come along when you can.  You can do so by either emailing me or Neil Lent, Lecturer (University Learning and Teaching) at the Institute for Academic Development.

About the author

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes is a research assistant in Veterinary Medical Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh. Kirsty is also currently seconded to the Institute for Academic Development working on student experience and assessment and feedback projects.  Her research interests include the student experience, student wellbeing, assessment and feedback and e-learning among others.


Sarah J. Mann (2001). Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: Alienation and engagement, Studies in Higher Education, 26:1, 7-19.

Debra E. Meyerson and Maureen A. Scully (1995). Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change. Organization Science, Vol. 6, No. 5, pp. 585-600.

Etienne Wenger (2010). Chapter 11. Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems: the Career of a Concept. In: Social Learning Systems and Communities of Practice, C. Blackmore (ed.), The Open University. Published in Association with Springer-Verlag London Limited.

Mantz Yorke (2011). Summative assessment: dealing with the ‘measurement fallacy’, Studies in Higher Education, 36:3, 251-273.

David J. Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education. Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 199–218.


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