Why we should focus on assessment and feedback literacy

iStock [NiroDesign]
iStock [NiroDesign]

It’s fair to say there is a sense of malaise surrounding assessment and feedback in the university. It’s understandable. NSS says we don’t do assessment and feedback very well. However, we have examples of excellence in both these areas across the university – witness our glowing external examiner reports!

The approach to solving this assessment and feedback ‘perception gap’ has so far largely been focused on quantity and timeliness. More feedback in good time – more from us, more from you, more more more!

One unfortunate result, as I see it, has been assessment and feedback fatigue. Students get bombarded with surveys they don’t want to complete. Staff work terribly hard at producing innovative assessment structures and giving detailed formative and summative feedback – all returned within 15 working days. But still we perform ‘badly’.

Cue collective hair-pulling.

What can we do? Best ask what we can’t do: we can’t do more (and more and more) of the same. Formative assessment is great, and the 15-day turnaround makes sense. But any more and we are all likely to buckle under the pressure.

This is where assessment and feedback literacy comes in. Research into assessment and feedback literacy makes some simple but very powerful observations that help explain the perception gap identified above. One, we cannot assume students know how they are being marked and we cannot assume they understand the messages we are sending them via feedback (or indeed understand that the messages ARE feedback). Two, assessment and feedback are SCARY. They have an impact on identity, on self-worth. There is something at stake, it is raw and emotional. And three, assessment and feedback should result in action. Saying ‘work on your structure’ is fine. But it tells the student nothing about how they should go about working on their structure, and we can’t assume they’ll just get it.

In sum, developing assessment and feedback literacy is a process of working with students to change (in the words of the great Gilbert Ryle) the dispositions of students towards these two fundamental aspects of their education. It places emphasis on not the delivery but the reception of feedback. It is about the socialization of students into a whole world of practices, expectations, performances and processes. Perhaps most importantly, it is about helping students come to see assessment and feedback not as something that happens or is done to them, but as tools they can use to secure their success.

Fine, but what should we do?

It strikes me that engagement with assessment and feedback should happen early and often. It should also be embedded in credit bearing courses (a powerful signal to students that this matters). For example, in Asian Studies we run credit bearing research courses for all first year undergraduate and postgraduate students, in which a workshop on assessment literacy is included. The workshop itself uses the HEA Engaging with Feedback Toolkit and includes structured activities such as defining feedback, marking an essay together and offering comments, working through case studies, discussing common comments from markers, and developing action plans. The toolkit is easy to put into practice and the sessions are lots of fun.

But it is not enough to do one workshop and walk away (although one workshop midway through first-year would still be a very positive step). Students need to be continually supported through the process of receiving feedback, setting goals, and evaluating their progress. Again, the HEA have produced wonderful tools to facilitate this engagement, including feedback handbooks and portfolio templates. Let’s consider using them. And just as staff have yearly appraisals, so too should students – after all they are working towards a set of graduate attributes that are clearly defined in advance.  A yearly note and review of three measureable goals, all kept on Euclid, could form the basis of productive personal tutor meetings that keep everyone engaged with those all-important questions: what am I doing, why, and where do I want to be next?

Or maybe we need to be more radical? Imagine a 20 credit 4th year honours course in which our soon-to-be graduates are assessed on how they synthesise and reflect on their entire degrees. We even have a framework for assessment: the Student-led Individually-Created Courses (SLICCs)…

A final thought. As a colleague pointed out in a recent discussion, assessment and feedback literacy run both ways. Students need it, but so do we. Embedding assessment and feedback workshops into our degree programmes might help us become even more literate ourselves.

For more on assessment and feedback, see these Teaching Matters blogs:

Why multimedia matters: promoting the use of video in assessment and feedback

Networking around technology and teaching – assessment and feedback

Leading Enhancement in Assessment and Feedback (LEAF) Project

Chris Perkins

Dr Chris Perkins is Senior Lecturer in Japanese and Director of Undergraduate Teaching in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. His research focuses on questions related to media, memory and modern Japanese history. Chris is also interested in how cultures within academic disciplines shape learning and teaching practice.

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