Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read. One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic). The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888. ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett. It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about marking examinations and my tendency to focus on the students that I had failed to teach rather than those who excelled in their knowledge of problem-solving with the laws of thermodynamics [see my post ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. One correspondent suggested that I shouldn’t beat myself up because ‘to teach is to show, to learn is to acquire‘; and that I had not failed to show but that some of my students had failed to acquire. However, Adams and Felder have stated that the ‘educational role of faculty is not to impart knowledge; but to design learning environments that support knowledge acquisition‘. My despondency arises from my apparent inability to create a learning environment that supports and encourages knowledge acquisition for all of my students. People arrive in my class with a variety of formative experiences and different ways of learning, which makes it challenging to generate a learning environment that is effective for everyone. It’s an on-going challenge due to the ever-widening cultural gap between students and their professors, which is large enough to have warranted at least one anthropological study (see My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan). So, my focus on the weaker exam scripts has a positive outcome because it causes me to think about evolving the learning environment.
Nathan R, My freshman year: what a professor learned by becoming a student, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 2005
I am not feeling very creative this week, because I am in middle of marking examination scripts; so, this post is going to be short. I have 20 days to grade at least 1100 questions and award a maximum of 28,400 marks – that’s a lot of decisions for my neurons to handle without being asked to find new ways to network and generate original thoughts for this blog [see my post on ‘Digital hive mind‘ on November 30th, 2016].
It is a depressing task discovering how little I have managed to teach students about thermodynamics, or maybe I should say, how little they have learned. However, I suspect these feelings are a consequence of the asymmetry of my brain, which has many more sites capable of attributing blame and only one for assigning praise [see my post entitled ‘Happenstance, not engineering‘ on November 9th, 2016]. So, I tend to focus on the performance of the students at the lower end of the spectrum rather than the stars who spot the elegant solutions to the exam problems.
Ngo L, Kelly M, Coutlee CG, Carter RM , Sinnott-Armstrong W & Huettel SA, Two distinct moral mechanisms for ascribing and denying intentionality, Scientific Reports, 5:17390, 2015.
Bruek H, Human brains are wired to blame rather than to praise, Fortune, December 4th 2015.
Feedback on students’ assignments is a challenge for many in higher education. Students appear to be increasingly dissatisfied with it and academics are frustrated by its apparent ineffectiveness, especially when set against the effort required for its provision. In the UK, the National Student Survey results show that satisfaction with assessment and feedback is increasing but it remains the lowest ranked category in the survey . My own recent experience has been of the students’ insatiable hunger for feedback on a continuing professional development (CPD) programme, despite receiving detailed written feedback and one-to-one oral discussion of their assignments.
So, what is going wrong? I am aware that many of my academic colleagues in engineering do not invest much time in reading the education research literature; perhaps because, like the engineering research literature, much of it is written in a language that is readily appreciated only by those immersed in the subject. So, here is an accessible digest of research on effective feedback that meets students’ expectations and realises the potential improvement in their performance.
It is widely accepted that feedback is an essential component  in the learning cycle and there is evidence that feedback is the single most powerful influence on student achievement [3, 4]. However, we often fail to realise this potential because our feedback is too generic or vague, not sufficiently timely , and transmission-focussed rather than student-centered or participatory . In addition, our students tend not to be ‘assessment literate’, meaning they are unfamiliar with assessment and feedback approaches and they do not interpret assessment expectations in the same way as their tutors [5, 7]. Student reaction to feedback is strongly related to their emotional maturity, self-efficacy and motivation ; so that for a student with low self-esteem, negative feedback can be annihilating . Emotional immaturity and assessment illiteracy, such as is typically found amongst first year students, is a toxic mix that in the absence of a supportive tutorial system leads to student dissatisfaction with the feedback process .
So, how should we provide feedback? I provide copious detailed comments on students’ written work following the example of my own university tutor, who I suspect was following example of his tutor, and so on. I found these comments helpful but at times overwhelming. I also remember a college tutor who made, what seemed to me, devastatingly negative comments about my writing skills, which destroyed my confidence in my writing ability for decades. It was only restored by a Professor of English who recently complimented me on my writing; although I still harbour a suspicion that she was just being kind to me. So, neither of my tutors got it right; although one was clearly worse than the other. Students tend to find negative feedback unfair and unhelpful, even when it is carefully and politely worded .
Students like clear, unambiguous, instructional and direction feedback . Feedback should provide a statement of student performance and suggestions for improvement , i.e. identify the gap between actual and expected performance and provide instructive advice on closing the gap. This implies that specific assessment criteria are required that explicitly define the expectation . The table below lists some of the positive and negative attributes of feedback based on the literature [1,2]. However, deploying the appropriate attributes does not guarantee that students will engage with feedback; sometimes students fail to recognise that feedback is being provided, for example in informal discussion and dialogic teaching; and hence, it is important to identify the nature and purpose of feedback every time it is provided. We should reduce our over-emphasis on written feedback and make more use of oral feedback and one-to-one, or small group, discussion. We need to take care that the receipt of grades or marks does not obscure the feedback, perhaps by delaying the release of marks. You could ask students about the mark they would expect in the light of the feedback; and, you could require students to show in future work how they have used the feedback – both of these actions are likely to improve the effectiveness of feedback .
In summary, feedback that is content rather than process-driven is unlikely to engage students . We need to strike a better balance between positive and negative comments, which includes a focus on appropriate guidance and motivation rather than justifying marks and diagnosing short-comings . For most of us, this means learning a new way of providing feedback, which is difficult and potentially arduous; however, the likely rewards are more engaged, higher achieving students who might appreciate their tutors more.
 Pitt E & Norton L, ‘Now that’s the feedback that I want!’ Students reactions to feedback on graded work and what they do with it. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, 42(4):499-516, 2017.
 Weaver MR, Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, 31(3):379-394, 2006.
 Hattie JA, Identifying the salient facets of a model of student learning: a synthesis of meta-analyses. IJ Educational Research, 11(2):187-212, 1987.
 Black P & Wiliam D, Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1):7-74, 1998.
 O’Donovan B, Rust C & Price M, A scholarly approach to solving the feedback dilemma in practice. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, 41(6):938-949, 2016.
 Nicol D & MacFarlane-Dick D, Formative assessment and self-regulatory learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in HE, 31(2):199-218, 2006.
 Price M, Rust C, O’Donovan B, Handley K & Bryant R, Assessment literacy: the foundation for improving student learning. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, 2012.
 Sellbjer S, “Have you read my comment? It is not noticeable. Change!” An analysis of feedback given to students who have failed examinations. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2017.1310801, 2017.
 Saddler R, Beyond feedback: developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in HE, 35(5):535-550, 2010.
 Hounsell D, Essay writing and the quality of feedback. In J Richardson, M. Eysenck & D. Piper (eds) Student learning: research in education and cognitive psychology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 1987.