Over the past couple of years, we’ve been involved in organising a reading group for colleagues here at the University of Edinburgh who are interested in assessment and feedback. The reading group was developed to critique literature and to think about new ideas that could be applied in our settings at the University. And it’s also been a great way to meet people from other schools and disciplines, as well as for sharing practice in our own areas. We’ve also hosted events with external speakers who are experts in the area of assessment and feedback which have brought in large numbers of participants and helped to inspire debate. As the University moves forward with a clear focus on teaching we thought it would be good to highlight the reading group again having previously written a blog post about it a year ago (see here). We feel now, as we did then, that the Assessment and Feedback Reading Group can be a place to focus on enhancement, highlight good practice going on across the University and work together towards a better student experience.
In 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.
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).
We 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 next 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.
The first paper of 2016 was all about feedback that effectively feeds forward to improve performance regardless of assessment type (Vardi, 2013). This was shown to be possible in a cohort of 1,200 through careful planning of the assessment task, focussing on marking criteria that went deeper than the subject matter or assessment type and training both the students and markers to gain a shared understanding of the criteria. This paper highlighted the need for global thinking and consideration of assessment and feedback at all levels of planning a course or programme.
At a recent event for Directors of Teaching on assessment and feedback, we noticed that a number of the themes which seemed to dominate the discussions around successes and challenges in this area were things we had touched on in the reading group. Assessment literacy was something that was recognised as a key priority for both staff and students, so that all understand the assessment process, can recognise what they expect from an assessment and what they are expected to do, so that they are well prepared. Other themes were around recognising and sharing good practice, thinking of ways of increasing formative assessment over summative or improving the balance of the two, how to make feedback actually useful and interactive and how to create a community of practice around it.
In hearing the successes and challenges in assessment and feedback from different schools, we were struck again that there is much good practice going on across the University that could inspire and guide others, and which is perhaps not shared as widely as it could be. Our goal is that the Assessment and Feedback Reading Group can be one way in which to do that, by providing a space and opportunity in which to share good practice as well as to learn about issues relating to assessment and feedback. As part of this the larger events we have organised have been great at drawing in lots of colleagues and getting them talking about assessment and feedback in new ways.
Two of these events, both with international experts, are worthy of note. In the first, Professor David Carless spoke on developing feedback as dialogue using examples drawn from award winning university teachers. David reminded us of the importance of viewing feedback as a dialogic process involving students and teachers rather than as a ‘commodity’ presented to students by teachers. This session was videoed, and can be accessed here. And, for a summary of his workshop see an earlier blog post here. We also hosted a workshop by Professor Sally Brown on assessing students in large groups, something which is likely to become more and more relevant to many of us. Sally presented ways of viewing this challenge constructively together with some ways forward in addressing the challenge. Again, you can find an overview of Sally’s suggestions in a blog post about the event which is available here.
We’ll be looking to host more of these events so if there’s an assessment / feedback issue you’d like to have addressed, or a speaker you’d like to hear, let us know. We can’t guarantee we’ll get who you want but we’ll try and you never know… We can also angle some of the readings towards the issues you face too. The intention for this year is to have a set day of the month but to rotate location so if you want to host at your campus/school please get in touch. We would encourage anyone with an interest in this area to sign up to the mailing list and come along when you can. For more information email Kirsty or Neil or join the mailing list: email@example.com
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.
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.
Iris Vardi (2013). Effectively feeding forward from one written assessment task to the next, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38:5, 599-610.
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.
About the authors
Kirsty Hughes is a research assistant in Veterinary Medical Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include the student experience, student wellbeing, assessment and feedback and e-learning among others.