“Thou shalt not finkle backwards”: Assessing work and feeding forwards rather than backwards

Forgive the quote from my all-time favourite book (The 13 ½ lives of Captain Bluebear) but something about the term ‘feedforward’ brought it to the front of my strange mind.

Anyway, on Friday I went to an event run by the Higher Education Academy at which the concept of providing ‘feedforward’ was outlined.

We’ve all seen it before as students: you hand in an essay, go to your pigeon hole with your heart in your mouth, and open the envelope to find… a mark and some “feedback”.
Initially the fact that your paper is covered in comments (sometimes ticks – yay!) is good, but when you delve deeper, and realise that mostly the comments pertain to the fact that you wrote “9” instead of “nine” (and other small things), you start to wonder what it’s all about.
The comments in the mark scheme on the front might not be much help either, concentrating on the small things (which can’t be why you only got that mark), or perhaps focusing on something completely impenetrable.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of feedback I received in my not-so-illustrious career as an undergraduate:
“This is a well-written, well-considered, and comprehensive analysis of the collapse of the Weimar Republic. However, you could perhaps have said a bit more.”
“…demonstrates wide-reading and understanding of the issues… the essay would have been strengthened by closer analysis of various attempts to translate concerns into influence. This would have added “balance” to the account and built a more “historically situated” analysis.”

Clearly the first falls into the trap of saying too little, and completely flummoxed me. Say more, about what? and how can I do that without breaking the word limit? Clearly something vital was missing, but it wasn’t something obvious (I’d like to think!).
The second is far more confusing. Although it identifies what is wrong, how to improve is much more nuanced, and necessitates an understanding of how to identify and fix problems of “balance” and how to “historically situate” analysis .

finkle

So, what is ‘feedforward’?

This rather interesting idea is that, instead of getting “hung up” on the small stuff (nines, for example) markers should aim to point out the two or three really important things which you should improve. The theory behind this is that people can only change a couple of things at a time, and that eventually (if they make successful changes) markers will end up having to suggest improvements on small stuff (like nines), as everything else will be much better.
There is also something of a ‘plain English’ campaign at work, called “actionable commands”. Instead of urging students to “proofread more thoroughly”, it’s probably more effective to say “next time, try reading your work aloud – this will help you spot the bits that make less sense”.

As we were reminded the current system of feedback only really serves to highlight to students what is wrong with what they did. With essays and assignments you hand them in once, you get the mark back, and that’s it. I never did do a second essay on “The rise of Boris Godenov in Imperial Russia’, even though it was one of the essays where I had enough feedback that I could have done brilliantly on it.

Using ‘feedforward’ not only saves markers time (and as there are more and more students and assessments for fewer and fewer staff to mark this will be vital), but also provides constructive comments which the student can then use in all of their future work.

However, it’s not as easy as it looks. Part of the exercise we did was to try and take some feedback and turn it into ‘feedforward’. Even though I’ve never marked anything before, my mind has been conditioned by my own experiences, and I found it incredibly hard not only to say something positive, but also to say it in such an unambiguous way.

Survey after survey tells us that particularly where History is concerned students feel that they don’t get enough feedback, having looked through my own feedback I think the actual gripe is that most of the time the feedback is not useful or helpful enough. Whether or not you think it’s right to take a top down approach in sorting out the problems in someone’s work or starting at the bottom (with the nines and things), providing ‘feedforward’ comments opens up a lot more time for markers to be available for their students in other ways (or, more attractively, to spend some (more) time in the pub).

Post by Stuart Butler

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