The power of oral feedback

Amy Burge, Runner-up in the 2014-15 EUSA Teaching Awards for ‘best feedback’ talks about how she used oral feedback in her Research Methods course.

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For many Masters students, research methods is the ‘boring’ bit of their degree. For some, it covers skills they feel they already have; for others, the content of research methods courses is dry and uninteresting: a necessary chore.

Yet, whether ‘boring’ or not, research methods is a key part of postgraduate study, equipping students to carry out independent research and to meet the learning outcomes of their programmes.

So how can we, as teachers of research methods, make these courses meaningful and interesting? How can we help students to engage and to see how useful these courses can be for their study?

These were some of the questions I was thinking about when incorporating oral feedback in a large Masters-level research methods course in the humanities and social sciences: ‘Research Skills and Methods’.

With a cohort of around 130 students drawn from across multiple programmes this course is, by necessity, devolved, customisable and (as previous feedback revealed) overly general. In particular, students felt that the assessment for the course – an annotated bibliography – was not as helpful for their research skills as they might have hoped.

I wanted to engage the students more deeply in their course and to highlight the usefulness of the course learning outcomes for their future research. Given that students were required for assessment to draw on comments to revise the annotated bibliography, I decided that a good place to start was feedback.

Now, we all know feedback can be tricky. It’s like Goldilocks; you don’t want to give too much, or give too little, but provide just the right amount. But there’s more to feedback than how much you give – it’s also about how you give feedback. What I decided to do for this course, was to give oral feedback on the course assessment. This was in addition to written feedback from subject area staff other students on the course.

One of the benefits of this course is that it is a blended learning course, where all assessment and feedback is carried our online through Turnitin’s GradeMark interface. This meant that I could very easily use Turnitin’s tools to record up to three minutes of verbal feedback for each student’s assignment.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what students would make of the oral feedback. It wasn’t something I had either experienced as a student or previously given as a lecturer. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the students loved it.

For a start, they seemed to think that this feedback was more than usually helpful. This might have been because I was able to give more feedback when speaking compared with writing, or it could simply have been that students were forced to pay more attention to my feedback; you can’t skim-read a recording. The virtual learning environment I used indicates when students have spent more than 30 seconds looking at their feedback. In previous years hardly any students had done this; when I used oral recordings, almost all students had engaged for at least 30 seconds.

I think that the oral feedback also allowed me to be more personal, which is particularly important for a large course where I do not know most of the students and where providing face to face feedback is impossible. This kind of feedback would also make sense for online and distance courses.

This method of giving feedback was not fool proof, however. I was aware that there might be some accessibility issues and so I offered students the opportunity for a transcription of my comments (although I am aware that this is not ideal). Equally, recording feedback did not, in the end, save me significant amounts of time. While I could give more personal and detailed feedback, the marking did not take me substantially less time. Furthermore, technical issues with Turnitin’s main servers meant that I could not make recordings for several days, a factor that put pressure on my marking period. Thinking longer term, I am not sure how easily this feedback could be used for the purposes of external examination, or application to a PhD programme, for example. It is not yet possible, as far as I am aware, to download the voice comments – hopefully this is something Turnitin will fix in the near future.

But even with these potential issues, the way that oral feedback seemed to engage students was quite remarkable and is, I think, a feedback innovation with promise.

 

Amy works as part of the IAD’s support team for tutors and demonstrators. She has worked extensively supporting student training in skills development and research methods at the University of York and the University of Edinburgh, in the Graduate School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures.

 

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