Ticky-tacky feedback

I’ve had two things on my mind this week – the first is the amazing cover of Little Boxes by Walk off the Earth:

(this is a serious earworm – catchy tune and lyrics which are political satire as relevant today as when the song was first written in 1962); the second is how to make assessment and feedback useful to students. And, actually, I think that both of these are connected.

It strikes me that often feedback is spoken about as something that teachers give to students – and that when students say, as they do over here every year in the NSS results, that they are not happy with the feedback they were given, pressure is put on teaching staff to give more feedback. But if we’re constructivists about learning – and we are, aren’t we? – then surely feedback should be something that we are helping students to construct for themselves, not something that we are giving to them.

I teach on a large level one course, and the bulk of the assessment on that course is by we tutors marking a 1500 word essay and a 90 minute exam (where they write two essays). The essay (worth 50% of the mark) is handed in in week 6 of the course, marked and handed back in week 9 with written comments, the exam is about 4 weeks after that. That’s not great – students are waiting for a long time before we tell them how they are doing (there are weekly MCQ quizzes, but they don’t test their ability to write or construct a philosophical argument, so they are of limited use), but the real problem with this design of assessment and feedback, imo, is that it treats the students as passive recipients rather than as active learners. I’m not meaning to single out Philosophy at U of Glasgow as being particularly bad – it’s just one example of a common method of assessing undergraduates.

The real issue is, I think, that we’ve accepted a constructivist model of learning, and we realise that students learn better when they are actively engaged with their learning, but we haven’t yet looked at how we might get students actively engaged with their feedback. But when you think about it it’s obvious – isn’t it? If students learn better when they construct things for themselves, then they will learn better if they are able to construct their own feedback. And, of course, there are plenty of ways that this can happen.

I like putting students in charge of their own learning – I’ve been using versions of the Jigsaw Classroom for many years now because it ticks so many boxes, and one of the things that it does it gives students opportunities to self-assess and get a feel for how they are doing compared to their peers – but the most powerful way of assessing students is to give them opportunities to construct their own feedback and to recognise that their judgments are at least as good as any so called expert. David Nicol’s REAP project has convinced me that peer review, or peer critiquing (which ever you want to call it)* works not because students get feedback from their peers, but because as they construct feedback for their peers they are also making judgments about their own.

So why have I called this post “ticky-tacky feedback”? Well, it’s because when I am sitting marking piles of anonymous undergraduate essays it’s hard to see the individuals behind the writing, and it is all too easy to turn into a marking machine and reward those students who follow the set formula, and that is wrong for so many reasons.  If all we are doing is assessing for the sake of assessment, and not for the sake of getting students engaged in their learning, then, as WOTE say, “they are all put in boxes and they come out just the same”.

I’m glossing over a lot of stuff here, but you get the point.

* Students don’t mark each other in this model – and that’s important. They provide comments without giving a mark or grade.

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5 Responses to Ticky-tacky feedback

  1. scottx5 says:

    Hurray for Malvina Reynolds, subdivisions of South San Francisco and the hills Daly City. If you are at the San Francisco airport, look West towards the Pacific. All the little houses used to meander along hills like sheep along a trail.

    Using art class Critiquing methods works to build feedback skills though I suspect time and class size might limit really developing student awareness of how to feedback usefully. Two of the art school I dropped out of in the ’70s actually graded performance in the critique but it DID take a few sessions to get to that place of being and honest useful to the person who’s work was being analysed.


    In one class we had a combined group critique with a first year psychology class. The things they saw in our drawings and paintings with only a week of Freud under their belts were amazing. The psych students displayed remarkable knowledge of the squishy bits of Freud and us art types felt deliciously soiled in our self-images.

    REAP sounds interesting, will look it up.

  2. Wendy says:

    I’m totally happy to be blamed for this ear worm…..what a great way to think of (not so effective) feedback. I also hear from academics that I work with about the ticky-tacky feedback given to the never-seen-or-heard students. The timefactor is important. I recently received a mark for my postgrad coursework (3 months after submission) and still waiting for comments. But in reality the project/writing has moved on since then, so feedback will be read but limited value I think.

  3. charlenedoland57 says:

    I haven’t heard that song in YEARS! Thanks for bringing it into my consciousness again. As for assessment…I agree with your assessment of it. 🙂 I use peer review regularly in all my (secondary school) classes, but it has its challenges. Even though the students have the assessment rubrics to refer to, I find they are often “soft” on their classmates, presumably so they don’t hurt their feelings. Your post has twigged an idea that I should have thought of before. Which is to do a “practice” review of work belonging to someone they don’t know, and to walk through it together. That would remove the emotional attachment to the student they are assessing and build skills. Just like mentor texts. I also totally agree with you that when they assess others, they are (consciously or unconsciously) assessing their own work at the same time. Thanks!

    • NomadWarMachine says:

      Hi Charlene. I think that your practice exercise is a great idea. – it should definitely help students to build their critical skills 🙂

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