27 April 2006

On getting feedback

I've finally cleared out my office. My successor starts work on Tuesday, and I wish her all the best.

For years I have stored all kinds of ancient files in my office, and moved them unthinkingly from institution to institution and office to office. Actually, last time I moved across campus, four years ago, I contrived to "lose" the contents of three whole filing-cabinets, and no-one ever noticed, least of all me. In fact, recently I have not opened my one remaining filing cabinet for months; and today I found a half-bottle of champagne and a box of chocolates in one drawer! And—I am pleased to say—evidence that supermarket plastic carrier-bags are really bio-degradeable; this one fell to pieces as I tried to lift it.

However, my really ancient files pre-date computer use, and the most ancient of them all were from my undergraduate days. Hand-written essays with hand-written tutor comments on them. First, I was struck by the detailed comments, at the same level as I aspire to nowadays. Then I read some of the summary comments at the end (we didn't get a grade for routine essays; all the assessment was by "finals"--three weeks of concentrated exams at the end of the whole three-year course.)

I was not at Oxbridge, but at Sussex, then known as "Balliol-by-the-sea", which adopted the same pattern of teaching. The only obligatory attendance requirement was at a weekly tutorial for each course (module); usually one or two students with a tutor. A student read out an essay, and it was discussed, and then another essay was set; so if there were two students, one produced an essay to read and discuss, and the other got written feedback on theirs.

And reading the comments on one of my first-year essays, I was transported back to the tutorial. I don't remember the details at the moment, but they'll come back to me; what I do remember is my mortification at reading those summary comments. Frankly, I was used to praise or encouragement for my efforts at school, but these were not like that. They provided feedback on the content, at an uncompromising academic level.

And I remember how I reacted. Just as we complain that our students react. (Yes, of course I know every sentence needs a verb in the main clause, you pedant!) I did not read them, until now, 40+ years later. I could not bear to. I just felt "put down". And so I did not benefit from their points.

Tutors gave critical feedback to the student who read their essay, of course. But it was verbal, and uttered in their presence (and in the presence of another student, usually) and therefore modified and often mollified by the conversational interaction and social context. I remember one tutorial in which a tutor took me to task for denying the sexual element of courtly love, in mediaeval literature. Even allowing for the waning inhibitions of the time (1964) he did so very gently, especially as my co-tutee was clearly much more worldly-wise than me. But what would he have written down, had I not been "presenting" that week?

Written feedback needs to be addressed to the student, not merely an expression of our own reactions. Consider how the student will read it (if at all--and, I now realise, don't castigate them for not reading and acting on it) and what you want to achieve by providing it.

I am now going to revisit the marking matrix (see http://www.doceo.co.uk/academic/marking.htm, for an up-coming module to check that it provides guidance on how to improve, rather than mere condemnation of aspects of failure. Perhaps then students will be able to summon up the courage to read it.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:40 pm

    Have recommended your site for a number of years to my students in college and now at MMU where I am based. Have always found it useful for them (and me)and enjoyed how the site has evolved over that time. Hope it will continue in some shape or form.......

    Best wishes for your retirement!!!


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