Ever increasing circles

A thought-provoking article by David Nicol in yesterday’s Times Higher explores some of the issues around the provision and reception of feedback in UK HE.  Writing in response to the National Union of Students’ Feedback Amnesty which was itself inspired by the poor rating for assessment and feedback in the 2007 National Student Survey, Nicol discusses a range of issues that can impact on the quality and value of feedback, describing it as a process that permeates every stage of the assessment process.  Feedback is a dialogue, not just from teacher to learner but from the learner to his teachers, his fellow students and most of all, himself.  The general understanding of feedback as something that is done by teachers to students should be refocused to centre on the learner, and give him both ownership of and responsibility for his own learning. As Nicol says, ‘when teachers deliver written feedback, students must be able to decode it, internalise it and use it to make judgements about their work.  Only then can they make improvements.’ 

Of course, the teacher has to provide a good level of feedback to enable the learner to do this.  It’s hard to start a dialogue when the only feedback provided is a mark and a terse comment.  One comment from the survey cited by Talat Yaqoob on the Amnesty’s Facebook page illustrates the frustration students can feel: ‘Getting an essay back where the only comment was “use a bigger text size” [tells me] nothing on how to improve my grade’. 

Despite this, however, Nicol observes that ‘a further problem is students’ willingness to participate’ in such dialogue despite the range of opportunities some teachers and institutions provide.  One of the reasons for this apparent student disinterest could be revealed in another story in the same issue, the publication of a ‘manifesto for change’ in assessment processes to which Nicol is one of a number of signatories.  Amongst a number of issues identified, the manifesto argues that the emphasis on marks and grades encourages students to take an instrumentalist approach to their studies at the expense of deeper learning.  It’s hard to imagine how this can be avoided, however, in a financial climate which effectively only allows students ‘one shot’ at university, and in which student loans, tuition fees and graduate endowments make a degree all about ‘the magical 2:1′ and very little to do with learning for its own sake.

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