7. Assessment and feedback
In relation to assessment we would like to focus on multiple choice questions. Other aspects of assessment of international students have be explored in a number of recent publications (e.g. Ryan, 2005; and Brown and Joughin 2007).
Multiple choice questions
Multiple choice questions present particular barriers to international students: the right answer should be unambiguously right; all the other answers should be plausible but wrong. The issue for international students is that because of language, the level of certainty can become lower or, equally, the level of ambiguity can become higher.
It is also difficult for new international students to interpret questions and to relate the theory with the questions asked, and to relate doubts and questions to those already addressed in frequently asked questions. So they need to be given opportunities to learn and practise the language in this particular context. Can we provide lists of typical language used in questions? Can past exam papers be provided at the beginning of the year and be worked on in tutorials?
The aim of feedback is to support learning in relation to stated outcomes. In other words, it should provide a link between the student’s present performance and future targets:
‘Personally feedback is one of the most important elements to improving.’ (Student, Economics Network survey)
Feedback (or lack of it) affects all students of Economics. In the case of international students, there are particular barriers as they may not be familiar with classifications, assessment rubrics or indeed the difference between writing conventions for essays, reports, or reflective journals. This is expressed by an Economics student:*
‘Learning experiences have not prepared me for the teaching and assessment style used in the UK as it differs very much from the system I am used to.’
It is worth remembering the need to be explicit: the ‘what’ the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. We should be explicit well in time before any students engage with work that will be assessed so that they have the chance to understand how learning outcomes relate to assessment. No feedback or poor feedback results in depriving students of information they need to develop.
Some Economics students feel they are left ignorant of their progress due to lack of continuous assessment and that there is too much dependence on the final exam. Comments include:*
‘We rarely get any feedback on our submitted work.’
‘Very little feedback received through all courses.’
Realistically, assessing students’ work is very time-consuming and possibly one of the most unrewarding tasks we have to engage with. Assessing the work of international students can be more complex and more time-consuming as we need to be sensitive to their use of the language. The cumulative spelling difficulties, unusual use of words, and uncommon sentence structure can make it very hard for us to feel constructive and to interpret appreciatively the meanings behind what is stated, and to mark the work fairly.
To return assessed work in a timely manner puts a lot of pressure on us. But unless we do so, the assessment is unlikely to be of much use as it can require a lot of effort to refocus on the work many weeks after it was submitted. Hence the large piles of uncollected essays when students have already moved onto something else! To empathise with this, think of the effort it may require for us to try to engage constructively with reviewers’ comments regarding a paper we have submitted for publication three months earlier! The same happens to students:*
‘[Feedback is] normally received too late to be of any help’; ‘Highly poor at my university, you have to chase lecturers for feedback.’
To give one-to-one feedback to all international students is unrealistic as there is not enough time when student cohorts are large. But we can understand students’ frustrations expressed below.* Let us just imagine that instead of detailed feedback from reviewers on a paper we submitted for publication, we have general areas of improvement for the errors we have made!
‘I would have loved a lot more feedback and criticism specifically about my own assignments rather than discussing them in groups.’
‘If the lecture give feedback one-to-one, it is very useful; just give classification is useless.’
Hyatt (2005) discusses types of feedback, and the importance of giving encouragement and appreciation to students with the purpose of establishing and maintaining good academic and social relationships.
One way to humanise formative comments is with the following structure:
- We start with a brief sentence of appreciation for the effort/time/interest the student has invested.
- We describe what has been done well.
- We highlight three points that need further development.
- We finish by expressing hope that the student’s future work may gain from our feedback.
In our experience, following such a structure makes the task of marking large numbers of essays and exams more personable and focused, coherent and fair for everyone involved, as all students get the same amount and type of comments, and we work more efficiently.
The following suggestions are designed to make students gain an appreciation of the challenges of assessing work, including the time taken to assess and to articulate feedback.
1. Give students as much preparation as you can prior to the actual evaluation. Explain how they will be tested and what is expected of them. Providing students with examples of model answers to past papers, for example, gives them a clear idea of the standards they should be aiming for. The Economics Network has excellent resources on this.
2. Before students have to submit an assessed piece of work, post a piece of work with errors and suggest that they:
- comment and mark it following specific criteria;
- write suggestions for improving the work;
- bring their conclusions to the lecture or tutorial to share with colleagues;
- in the lecture or tutorial, give 5 minutes for international and UK students to share their conclusions in mixed groups.
When students hand in their work for assessment, a way of addressing the multiple tensions referred to above is as follows:
- We post a numbered list of formative comments on particular difficulties, frequent misinterpretations and errors on VLE or by email.
- We suggest that the students reflect on the completed task, and conduct self-evaluation in their own time with reference to the numbered list we provided.
- We ask the students to bring a copy of their self-evaluated work to the following lecture or tutorial.
- We address the points on the numbered list in plenary.
This gives international students a chance of understand better the type of feedback they are likely to receive, and to have an idea of what to expect.
We can provide students with a list of common issues that they can use for self-assessment, and use the same list when we assess the work, as a way to provide consistency of terms of reference. If new patterns of errors emerge, we can distribute them to complement the previous list.
Fullekrug et al. (2007) engaged in an assessment protocol that included students sharing their lecture notes online with other students and with the lecturers. This became an interesting strategy to share understanding of the topic and to complement, clarify and/or correct the notes. The co-created lecture notes were compiled as a comprehensive booklet which led to a sense of group ownership. This type of assessment increased focus and purpose. The staff involved learnt the common difficulties presented by the subject and the time spent assessing the work was effectively reduced.
A word about language. Even though some international students will come to the UK to ‘master the language to perfection’, once they stop attending English language courses their level of written English can deteriorate rapidly. Therefore, whilst as lecturers or teachers we do not have the time or training to provide written commentaries on language use, it is advisable to make a sensitive remark about general language use (e.g. relating to word structure, making plurals and using articles).