In April 2016, colleagues from Moray House School of Education began a PTAS-funded project to investigate the experiences of taught postgraduate students and staff with different forms of assessment and feedback. A team of postgraduate taught (PGT) students took a leading role in all stages of the project, with support from academic staff and the Institute for Academic Development (IAD).
Whilst assessment can often be narrowly understood as a bolt-on measure of how well learning has been achieved, a more nuanced view is one which sees assessment as an integral part of learning. On this understanding, assessment is a shared process between students and staff through which students become aware of their own learning needs and are supported to become independent and self-regulating learners.
Six students from the MSc Education, all of whom had taken a course on ‘Learners, Learning and Teaching’, were recruited to the project and asked to develop their own focus for research under the heading of ‘assessment as learning’. The students designed their research around one or more of three suites of MSc programmes in the school, all of which had been identified as taking an innovative approach to assessment in an attempt to promote student engagement with their learning and their development as independent learners.
The investigations covered a range of topics, including: student expectations in the style of feedback; student perceptions of variations in written feedback; and student responses to an innovative “reflection-based” model of feedback. It is, of course, important to be careful of generalisations as the findings are from four very small-scale studies. However, similar issues arose across the 30 student interviews.
The main themes that emerged across the projects were:
- A desire amongst students to form a relationship with their tutors and the importance of feedback being delivered within the context of that relationship. However, it was recognised that in most cases relationships can be difficult to establish because of other demands on time (both of students and of staff).
- Contrary to what some literature suggests, the majority of PGT students are not ‘expert students’ arriving at university as confident independent learners.
- There are clear differences in cultural expectations of feedback which, given the international profile of the PGT student community, suggests there is scope for specific work to develop assessment literacy for the UK context.
- All students want a balance between negative and positive comments, with the general perception that feedback tends to focus too much on pointing out errors or problems.
- While more academically able students want feedback on their ideas, weaker students want detailed feedback on their writing skills. They express a strong preference for this to be delivered by their course tutor and not through another university service. For tutors, feedback on weaker work tends to be more instrumental and focused on technical aspects of writing, whereas feedback on stronger work is viewed more as a dialogue.
- For assessment to be perceived by students as part of an on-going dialogue it has to be delivered by the person who did the teaching.
From the feedback received, it appears that students would like to see further emphasis on the importance of independent learning in PGT study, improved clarity of performance criteria and how this relates to feedback and, where possible, assurance that students’ work will be assessed by the person who taught the course. The sample suggests it may also be useful for Schools to provide more staff training on different cultural expectations around assessment and feedback, on how to achieve a balance between positive and negative comments, and on how to effectively develop a dialogue in assessment and feedback (particularly with less able students).
All four students who completed their dissertations were invited to submit a presentation for the Scottish Education Research Association annual conference.
In addition to this presentation, we are working on an article for submission to a peer reviewed journal to disseminate the findings. The focus of this will be the importance of the pedagogical relationship in higher education.
The students involved in the project had a very positive learning experience, reporting that they enjoyed the experience of being part of a research team, albeit each with their own ‘angle’. This suggests that there is further potential for this model of group PGT dissertation study. The staff members involved in this study had the opportunity to reflect on their practice and also to hear about how their assessment practice is experienced by students.
Read the PTAS report for this project, and others relating to assessment and feedback, on the PTAS website
Find out more about the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme
Browse information and guidance on assessment and feedback on the Institute for Academic Development website