Ask any academic what the most challenging part of their job is and chances are that many of them will mention assessment. It’s one of the most important things that we do in our role as teachers, and it’s perhaps the central mechanism through which we engage students fully in their own learning. But it raises a lot of difficult issues. What’s the best way to assess students? How do we ensure that our systems are sensible and manageable both for us and for our students? How do we ensure that we mark fairly and equitably? And how do we manage the burden of large numbers of students? These are big questions and I was glad of the advice and support that Sally Brown had to offer when she came to the University last month to lead a workshop on assessment.
For Sally the student is the driving force behind the quest for high quality assessment. She described assessments as being like punctuation marks for students because they give rhythm and structure to the work that they do for any course. And they chase grades like money. All of this means that students need to see the value in what they’re doing if they are to engage more fully with the assessment process. So what practical things can we do to ensure that students do see the value in what they are doing?
Well, there are a number of quite small but very effective steps that we can take. Given that many students in first year drop out after the first 6-7 weeks, Sally suggested the need for an early first assessment. This should be designed so that it is something that the students will pass. We don’t want them to feel out of their depth and as if they don’t know what they’re doing. Rather, we want to let the students know how they are doing and give them the confidence that they’ve got what it takes to be at university.
And this links to questions about what students actually do with feedback. In an ideal world we’d like feedback to be a transformative experience, something that students can use to change their practice and improve their performance. As Sally put it, feedback needs to earn its keep. But does it? Here she suggested that it is actually formative assessment – where students get feedback that helps them to improve on their work and do better – that is the most crucial. But students are often driven by summative assessment, after all the marks are what they care about, such that there is a need for us to work much harder to convince the students that they should take formative assessment seriously. And this, of course, raises strategic questions about the structure and timing of feedback. Students make most use of feedback when it’s quick and when they can use it to help them prepare for the next assignment. Interestingly, Sally suggested that we ought to rethink giving feedback on the assignments that final year students submit because they won’t be using it to prepare for any future assignments. An immediate lightening of what we sometimes see as the burden of assessment.
Sally also argued that we need to make sure that our students are not confused about assessment. Learning outcomes, assessment criteria and written feedback are often not enough. There needs to be dialogue too because this brings assessment and feedback to life. Building on the work of Royce Sadler, she suggested that one way to help students understand the required quality of the piece of work they’re doing is to let them see lots of previous assessments. Give them the stunning ones and talk with the students about what makes them so good. And, of course, that dialogue builds a shared understanding of standards, and the students need this is they are to trust the judgements that we make about their work.
The last part of the workshop focused on some very practical things we can do to ensure that feedback is just, fair, validated and given due accord. Marking schemes are a useful tool to help people make sensible decisions about marks. Giving oral feedback to the class as a whole is a really quick and effective way to summarise key take home messages – and Sally illustrated this beautifully in the workshop itself. A generic written report, covering similar points, examples of good practice, common errors and additional reading, is another quick way to give high quality feedback. Though with this Sally warned that it was really important to brief the students so that they would take it seriously. Writing a range of model answers is also a good strategy especially for first years because it helps them to understand the quality of work expected of them. And, it’s better to show students something that’s good than simply to talk about what makes a first class essay. Another possibility is to annotate students’ work using a ‘statement bank’. Sally suggested that we all have ‘stock phrases’ that we rely on quite heavily when marking. So why not make them into a statement bank – hers runs to around 70 phrases – and paste these on to the students’ assignments? Simple and effective. There are lots of things we can do. Some will work for us, some might not, but Sally suggestion is ‘just do it’!
I was struck by a very astute point that Sally made part way through the workshop. Drawing on David Boud’s work she quipped that students can avoid bad teaching but they can’t avoid bad assessment. As she so capably demonstrated during the workshop there are many things we can do if we are to make feedback earn its keep and be a truly transformative process for our students.
About Sally Brown
Sally Brown is Emerita Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University and was until July 2010 PVC (Academic). She is widely published, largely in the field of teaching, learning and assessment. She is an independent consultant and workshop facilitator who offers keynote addresses at conferences and events in the UK and internationally.
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