What can nominations for the EUSA Teaching Awards tell us about providing good feedback on student work?
I have been working for Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) as the Research Assistant for their PTAS-funded project ‘What does Good Teaching Look Like to Students?’ In my time coding and analysing the student nominations for the EUSA Teaching Awards, the answer to “what do students appreciate in feedback?” was one of the more straightforward questions to answer. Nomination comments consistently highlighted practical examples of how great a tutor or supervisor was at giving feedback. Exclamations of “I don’t know how they do it” were rampant and considering the focus on promptness as well as the quantity of feedback, this is not surprising. Students valued and appreciated lengthy, personalised and encouraging feedback on all assessments; they wished to see the effort and time they put into their work reciprocated in the tutor’s feedback.
Looking deeper, a key factor to a nomination in the Best Feedback award category was the ability of a marker to effectively and clearly communicate a road map to student success. Whether specifically reflected in grades or simply aspects of grammar and punctuation, a guide to improvement that was easily followed by students was always greatly appreciated. For students, feedback should aim to highlight what was done well and should be repeated (which is the valuable part of feedback that staff can forget to include), as well as how to improve the areas that were subpar. Even pages and pages of critical feedback won’t be helpful if it simply outlines good and bad, since students need and appreciate definitive steps forward. For students to make considerable improvements, the reasoning behind critiques should be clear, digestible and directly linked to a section of writing or an argument.
In my examination of the hundreds of nominations for Best Feedback, the importance of guiding suggestions with clear, attainable goals cannot be understated. A student should not be left feeling that a nonsensical introduction paragraph is something they are doomed to include in every essay submission over the course of their degree. They need to have an understanding of how to adjust the structure and how to phrase concise arguments. This must be conveyed through clear feedback. And then, if the student is still somewhat lost, they need the support and time of academic staff to help them work through their issues and improve their work. This can be done in an individualised session or in a group-based Meet the Marker session.
The ability of these teachers to understand the personal strengths and weaknesses of each student was paramount in the nomination comments. Feedback does not need to be pure encouragement since coddling a university student is unnecessary; nominations regularly mentioned, with admiration, the deftness of certain critical and constructive comments. This type of balanced feedback is difficult and from personal experience it is far too common to get feedback that starts off with “this is a good piece of writing BUT…” before listing off issues without returning to that initial, fleeting positive feeling.
Teachers must know that taking the time to create feedback that has both quality and quantity with a focused, student-by-student approach is greatly appreciated and valued. It makes better students, it encourages them to work on their weaknesses and it creates transparency on how students can improve their grades. This, of course, depends on the motivations of students to actually implement constructive, insightful feedback, and in their eyes, feedback should strive to make it as clear as possible how to do so.
If each bit of feedback can provide a step to better learning and a stronger academic experience, it would greatly reduce the barriers for all students to understand the road they must take for their own development. Teachers should look forward and attempt to guide students on how to build upon each piece of work. Teachers who can accomplish these tasks are greatly appreciated and praised by the students they mentor. With the EUSA Teaching Awards as an indication, every piece of personalised advice will be highly valued and help develop confident, empowered students.
For further examination of the 2014-2015 Teaching Awards, keep an eye out for EUSA’s final report of the analysis which is coming soon!