Mid-winter ruminations on meaningful assessment and feedback.

Students are back, but how best to keep up with the demands of timely and effective feedback?

It’s that time of year again: the students are back and embarking on the next stage of their academic programme and it’s all too easy for both staff and students to feel somewhat jaded after the Christmas and New Year break.  But for me, this is a time to reflect and to gear up for the year ahead. So, I’ve been thinking again about the challenges we face in university assessment and ways we might overcome them for everyone’s benefit.

I’ve spent the last 10 years working with academics across all disciplines. Of course I‘ve been a student myself, and I’ve also run teaching labs and been involved in all aspects of pedagogy - from designing courses to face-to-face teaching, designing and marking assessments and providing and collating feedback. It reminds me that today’s challenges are shared by academics across all subjects.

We are all familiar with the increasing pressures on resources. Student numbers rise, while space, staff time and equipment tend to go in the opposite direction. In practically-based subjects, this is a particular issue since lab or workshop learning is so resource-intensive.

Students come to higher education with hugely varying backgrounds and experiences, especially when you add international students to the mix. They will have undertaken different types of examination regimes, varying levels and quality of physical resources and many will have had little or no lab experience. It’s vital therefore to establish a solid foundation very early on in their undergraduate careers - a way of ensuring that all students are up to speed as soon as possible.  

There is an ever-increasing need to mark and return work speedily, and with the best possible quality of feedback, so that students can learn from their initial attempts. We all want our students to develop and learn, but working out the most effective ways to do that can be tricky. It’s not just a question of ticking boxes or providing generic pointers - the best feedback has to provide individualised guidance and students need to access that feedback and learn from it and incorporate it into their future practice. Students now have high expectations of feedback, but the reality can be underwhelming. Why?

Teaching staff undertake many activities to support their students, and universities invest in educational technology through the provision of systems and tools. But staff don’t always get the training they need or the kind of user-friendly packages that could really help. So staff struggle to maximise the effectiveness of the educational technology they use.

How to cope? Well interestingly, the answer may lie partly with the experience many students now bring with them to university. More so than previous generations, today’s students tend to have a familiarity with technology. They have been used to using it in their schools and in their daily lives.

Providing educational technology that has been streamlined for those aspects of assessment that can be automated, provides the opportunity for immediate feedback, something most of them are used to outside their studies. This allows staff to focus their time on individualised feedback on more of the interpretation of their results and helping them link the experiment with the theory.