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3. Some innovative assessment and feedback activities

This chapter will outline some assessment and feedback activities that could be used to help overcome some of the problems identified in Chapter 2. It will include two detailed case studies of innovations that were introduced onto an economics degree programme.

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3.1 Delivering quick feedback in modules with large student cohorts

Some possible methods that could be used to provide prompt feedback include:

Providing feedback after reading a sample of the assignments

Instead of reading all the assignments before providing any feedback, the lecturer could read through a sample of the assignments and report back on some of the common weaknesses as soon as possible. The weaknesses could be communicated to the students in a number of ways:

  • verbally in class time – maybe at the beginning of the next lecture. (This will be more effective the closer the lecture is to the hand-in date for the coursework.)
  • written form – i.e. via a written announcement on the VLE.

As previously discussed, imperfect feedback received quickly can often be more effective than detailed feedback provided much later.

Providing feedback before reading the assignments!

Ideally the hand-in date and time for the coursework should be at the start of a lecture. If the work has to be handed in to a central point then the hand-in date could be set on the same day as the lecture. If possible, the hand-in time should be set an hour before the lecture begins. Without the time constraint there is a danger that a number of students might miss the lecture because they are busy completing the coursework! At the start of class the students should be provided with a coloured sheet with some numbered points that have been previously prepared. These numbered points should include a brief explanation of the likely mistakes you anticipate the students will have made on their assignments and/or some of the key features or characteristics of a good answer. With only limited teaching experience, lecturers can soon predict the sort of mistakes the students will make. You could provide examples of useful diagrams or mathematics you would expect to see in an excellent answer. Typically about 15 numbered points have been included when this approach has been used on a level one microeconomics module. Some examples are shown below:

  1. The essay has no introduction! Instead it launches straight into the main body of the answer.
  2. Relevant diagrams have been included but not explained. Diagrams should form a central part of the explanation and application of relevant microeconomic theory to the question.
  3. Relevant diagrams have been included with some explanation but these were not developed in enough detail or applied to the question.
  4. General explanation of elasticity is included but not applied to the question, i.e. implications of inelastic demand and supply for the size of price changes in response to changes in demand/supply.
  5. A diagram should have been included to illustrate the impact of a per unit subsidy – see the textbook page 95.
  6. A diagram has been included to illustrate the impact of a per unit subsidy but the impact on producer/consumer surplus and economic efficiency has not been illustrated or explained in enough detail – see the textbook page 110.
  7. The essay does not have a conclusion and comes to an abrupt end. A conclusion should pull together the key ideas/arguments from the main body of the essay.
  8. Poor English – you should seek help and support from the Centre for Academic Writing.

Do not simply start the lecture by explaining each point on the sheet. Instead, let the students read through the list for five minutes and anticipate that the room will go very quiet as they realise the sort of issues they should have included and the mistakes they have made! After five minutes of quiet reading time, explain some of the points on the handout to the students. The amount of time and number of points you want to explain is up to the individual but it is probably best not to spend more than 10–15 minutes on this activity. When you take the work away and mark it you can include statements such as ‘please see the following points on the handout: 3, 7, and 8’ rather than having to write out the same comment over and over again on the assignment. The written comments that you do make can be more personalised to each piece of work.

One potential issue with this method of feedback is how you deal with students who hand in work late with an agreed extension. For this reason, when used in the microeconomics module the session had to be delayed for one week as a couple of students had an agreed extension. However when surveyed at the end of the academic year, 85% of the economics students still found this to be the most effective piece of feedback that they had received.

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3.2 Overcoming the distraction caused by students seeing their marks

One possible method is to not release marks on the VLE until the students have collected their coursework from the seminar/workshop. The lecturer would take a marks list to the workshop and return the coursework without a mark. The students are then given some time to try and work out their mark from the feedback. They could also be encouraged to compare the feedback on their work with that of their peers in order to help them with the process. A grade incentive could also be used to encourage the students to take the activity seriously. For example they could be awarded the higher of the two marks if they self-assessed within 5% of the lecturer’s assessment.

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3.3 Some methods/activities to help students engage with and understand the assessment criteria

What methods could be used to encourage students to engage with assessment criteria both before they start studying for the coursework and while they are researching/writing the coursework? Two possible activities will be outlined in some detail.

The first activity is a marking exercise which could help students to engage with the assessment criteria before they start their assignments. A detailed case study is included which outlines and evaluates how the exercise was implemented onto an economics degree programme. The second activity is the use of self-assessment sheets. These could be used as a way of encouraging students to engage with the assessment criteria while actually writing their assignments. Some discussion of the different ways of introducing these sheets is included as well as some discussion of the potential drawbacks and how these might be avoided.

3.3.1 Encouraging students to engage with the assessment criteria before they start studying for a piece of coursework

Top tip

Make sure you focus on examples of work which demonstrate and illustrate the parts of the assessment criteria that students find the most difficult to understand, e.g. analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Try to make the exemplars as recent as possible.

3.3.2 Encouraging students to engage with the assessment criteria while completing their coursework

Self-assessment sheets could be used to develop the students’ ability to evaluate their work during the research and write-up stage. The forms can provide a structured framework to help them reflect and critically evaluate their own assignments. Generic versions are available from various websites (for example) and could be easily adapted by tutors for use with specific coursework. One option is to include some simple yes or no questions, for example ‘Please indicate whether you have checked the following:

  • The title of the piece of work i.e. is it correct?
  • Referencing and bibliography – is it in the correct format?
  • Labelling on any diagrams – is it complete and accurate?’

The form could ask the students to assess their own performance against a number of criteria. For example, they might be asked to rate their own work as excellent, good, adequate or poor against the following:

  • quality of the introduction;
  • structure and logical development of the content;
  • relevance of the material to the question;
  • understanding and application of relevant economic theory;
  • depth of analysis;
  • quality of the conclusion.

Some questions could be much more open ended with space left for the student to make some comments, for example ‘Please list what you feel are the strengths of the work’; ‘Which aspects of the work did you find the most difficult or are most dissatisfied with?’ Another alternative would be simply to ask the students to assess their work using the same marking sheet as the tutor. Two ranking lists could be included against each of the criteria, i.e. one for the student to complete and one for the lecturer to complete. An example is shown below.

Please rate your own work using the following scale:

1 = poor           2 = adequate     3 = good          4 = excellent

Understanding and application of relevant economic theory
Your rating
1       2       3       4
1       2       3       4
Tutor’s rating

Whatever version of the form is adopted, once completed, the students should attach a copy to their coursework when it is submitted.

Some reservations about the use of self-assessment sheets:

Will the self-assessment reflect the students true beliefs?

Rather than honest self-evaluation students may behave strategically if they believe that their rankings will have an influence on the tutor. For example, they may think that ranking their own work as poor will increase the likelihood of receiving a low mark from the tutor. It may be more effective to have two separate forms – one for the feedback provided by the tutor and one for the self-assessment sheet. It might also be useful to ask the students to attach the self-assessment sheet at the end of the assignment and the marking feedback sheet at the front of the assignment. The lecturer could explain that they will only look at the self-assessment sheet after they have filled in the marking sheet and awarded a final mark.

Will the students complete the forms?

Evidence from their use in three Geography modules found that completion rates varied between 28% and 75%. You could make submission of the self-assessment sheets part of the assessment criteria and deduct marks if they fail to attach them to the coursework. Alternatively you might explain that you will only release marks once the forms are submitted. However this may create some extra administrative costs for the tutor.

Will the students engage with the process in a meaningful way?

Studies have found that a majority of students admit to filling out the form at the last minute. They also acknowledged that they tended to simply tick the boxes without giving much thought to the self-evaluation process. Feedback from their use on Geography modules suggested that when filling out the forms a number of students realised the potential benefit but printed them out so late that there was no time to change their coursework. Those that had used them more than a few days before the deadline had found it useful in helping them to focus on the precise requirements for the coursework. They had adapted their coursework in response to this structured reflection process. This suggests that it is very important that the potential benefits of self-assessment forms are explained before they are used. However students may simply have to experience the forms and the regret of missing the potential benefits before they will engage with the process on subsequent assignments. It is strongly advised therefore that they are used on a number of modules and especially in the first year of the course. The form could be adapted to the assessment requirements of each particular module.

Top tip

If possible use the self-assessment sheets across a range of modules as students do not seem to fully appreciate the potential benefits until they have failed to take advantage of the sheet on at least one occasion.

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3.4 Encouraging students to engage with feedback

The use of exemplars and self-assessment sheets are activities which are designed to help the students engage with and understand the assessment criteria. In the process they should become better prepared to receive feedback on their work. However there is still no guarantee that they will engage with and use the feedback. As previously discussed they may not fully appreciate the potential benefits to their learning. Perhaps there is an element of hyperbolic discounting: they keep meaning to read the feedback the next day. Unfortunately when the next day arrives they delay it again! This process continues with the student never looking at the feedback. Perhaps some assessment activities could be introduced which magnify the potential benefits and incentives of using the feedback. This could be within and across assignments. Also in some instances the feedback may have been read and understood and its full value appreciated. However the student still fails to improve because they simply do not know how to respond to the feedback. The following section will outline and assess some potential methods of dealing with some of these issues. They include:

  • The use of ‘draft assignments’ to increase the incentives to use feedback within an assignment. A detailed case study is included which outlines and evaluates the introduction of a peer review process of draft assignments on an economics programme.
  • The use of ‘pro formas’ and ‘assessments’ to increase the incentives to use feedback across different assignments.
  • The use of ‘peer group discussions’ to help students consider the best way of responding to the feedback.

3.4.1 Increasing the incentive for students to engage with feedback within an assignment

Draft assignments

The student submits a draft version of the assignment a few weeks before the deadline for the final copy. The draft could simply be an outline/plan or a draft of the final copy. The lecturer provides feedback on the draft which can then be used by the student to improve the final copy before submission. The rationale behind this type of assessment design is to magnify the incentives to the students of using the feedback provided by the tutor. The immediate usefulness and ‘feedforward’ of the comments should be more apparent. Hopefully the experience will have a lasting effect. Having seen the usefulness of feedback through the draft assignment it should help them to appreciate the potential usefulness and value of feedback provided on the final copy of subsequent assignments.

Some reservations about the use of draft assignments

Some students may try and game the system so others believe it is unfair

Students may game the system as they believe that they can effectively get the tutor to write the work for them. This problem could be made worse if multiple drafts were permitted. This fear was expressed very powerfully by an economics student at a focus group:

‘A student could put a small amount of effort into an initial draft that was worth about 40%. They would then receive guidance from the lecturer about how to make this piece of work worth 70%. I could work really hard on my draft copy and produce a piece of work worth 65% and get feedback on how to make it worth 70%. This is not fair because the lecturer is giving the lazy student a short cut to the high mark.’

The comment helps to illustrate an important point about the type of feedback provided on draft assignments. It should focus on how the student can improve their own work rather than feedback that directly improves the work. There is often a fine line between these two objectives.

Impact on the workload of the tutors

Tutors may resist this type of assessment because of the potential increase in marking loads. However this could be overcome to some extent by only providing a mark on the final piece of work or very brief feedback. Also staff may worry that they will get more cases of students complaining on the grounds that they have carried out all the suggested improvements and have still got a relatively low mark. Another innovative way of dealing with the workload issue is to get the students to peer assess and provide feedback on the draft copies.

Top tip

Care needs to be taken with the way feedback is provided on drafts. It needs to focus on the way the student can improve the work rather than being given feedback that directly improves the work.

Top tip

Expect students to have strong reservations about peer review. It is very important that the potential benefits are clearly explained before they take part in the activity. In particular spend some time focusing on the potential benefits from reviewing somebody else’s work.

Alternative ways of organising the peer review process: anonymity vs. discussion/ dialogue

Some students may find the reviewing process both difficult and stressful. They may feel uneasy about making critical comments if their identity is known by the reviewee. The whole process could be made less daunting by making it anonymous. Allocating the papers by student ID does create a certain level of secrecy in the activity previously outlined. However there is still a possibility that each student may become aware of exactly who else in the room is peer reviewing their work. The use of technology could be used to increase the level of anonymity by allowing the activity to take place outside the classroom. The Centre for Academic Writing at Coventry tried to develop software to do this. More recently a ‘Learning and Teaching Development Project’ has been funded by the Economics Network which evaluated the use of an online peer review system on an economics module. The software used in the project was the peer review function embedded within Turnitin which is used by many departments. Setting up peer review within Turnitin is a fairly straightforward three-step process.

  • Step 1 – Assignment: the tutor has to determine which assignment will have the peer review.
  • Step 2 – Distribution: the tutor has to decide how many assignments each student will peer review and how they will be allocated. Turnitin enables the tutor to choose between three allocation systems:
    • automatically and randomly allocated by the ‘Turnitin’ system;
    • manually selected by the instructor;
    • self-selected by the student.
    A combination of the different methods can be chosen.
  • Step 3 – Questions: the tutor has to set the criteria/questions that the students will use to carry out the peer review.

For more details and evaluation see the final project report on the following link

The drawback of creating anonymity is that it reduces the opportunities for students to compare and discuss the peer review with colleagues. This is something that a number of them said they would find very useful. They also argued that they would have more confidence in the feedback and were more likely to respond to the comments if they were the agreed outcome of joint discussions. An alternative way of running peer review which encourages dialogue is outlined in the following section.

  • The students are asked to bring at least two copies of their assignment.
  • The tutor places them in non-friendship groups of three or four. Each student is asked to read and review the assignments of two other students in the group.
  • The students are given 30 minutes to mark each assignment.
  • The two peer reviewers for each assignment are instructed to spend 15 minutes comparing their thoughts and ideas before producing an agreed set of comments.
  • The lecturer should move from group to group during the activity and check the feedback and marking of one of the assignments in each group to make sure they are appropriate.
  • At the end of the session the student receives the agreed feedback on their work and must explain how they have used this feedback in their final submission.

This activity would require a two-hour workshop and may get logistically complicated as the tutor would have to make sure that two students are looking at the same piece of work. This is more involved than in the exemplar activity where all the students are looking at the same pieces of work.

3.4.2 Increasing the incentive for students to utilise feedback across different assignments

The draft submission clearly increases the incentives for students to engage with feedback as it can be immediately used to improve the final submission of that piece of work. The process happens within an assignment. Ultimately, the aim is to get students to appreciate how feedback can be used across different assignments. We want them to become fully aware of how they can use feedback in one assignment to help them improve their subsequent assignments. The following methods/activities magnify the incentives for the student to use feedback across different assignments.

‘How have you used feedback’ pro forma

As part of the submission for a piece of coursework students are asked to complete a form that asks them what feedback they have received in previous assignments. They are also asked to explain how this feedback has been used to help improve the current assignment. The process could be taken one stage further by setting a whole assignment on the use of feedback. One method that has been used on an economics module is outlined below.

An assessment based on feedback

The students are asked to write a 1000 word reflective essay with the following title ‘Identify your strengths, weaknesses, priorities and actions taken/actions required to close deficiencies with regard to your academic skills’. When answering the question students are asked to focus on the marks and feedback received. Each strength and weakness identified has to be evidenced with reference to a particular feedback comment. They are instructed to attach the feedback sheets in an appendix to the essay. They are also asked to complete a learning style questionnaire e.g. Honey and Mumford. Having identified their dominant learning style the student also has to assess the associated strengths and weaknesses of that learning style.

Alternative ways of running this activity

The timing of this type of activity/assessment can make it difficult for the students to collect enough evidence. If the assessment has to be completed by the end of the first term/semester then many students will have only received limited feedback on their work.

Perhaps the ideal time for this type of activity would be the beginning of the second year. Students could be asked to collect all of their first-year work and identify any key strengths or weaknesses. A really innovative approach would be to ask them to include feedback from their examination papers if that is possible.

3.4.3 Encouraging students to think about how they should respond to feedback

This final assessment activity uses peer discussion to help students think about the most effective ways of responding to feedback. The activity works as follows:

  • Students are asked to bring copies of their coursework with feedback to a workshop.
  • They are placed in small groups and asked to explain/discuss what feedback they have received. They should also read the feedback on other students work.
  • They are allocated to small groups and asked to discuss what they believe the feedback means on both their own work and that of their peers. They are told to identify their own and the other students’ key strengths and weaknesses. They should also discuss how the feedback could be used to help improve performance in future assignments.

A key part of the discussion could be based around how the student intends to work on improving any weaknesses. The student could be asked to develop an action plan which outlines how they will respond. The appropriate action will depend on the nature of the weakness identified. For example one prompt would be to ask if the feedback refers to any weaknesses or gaps in their understanding and application of economics. If this is the case they could be asked what they think is the most appropriate action. Are they simply going to look at the same textbook/material again or are they going to try and find alternative sources that explain the same principles but maybe in a way they can better understand? Have they thought about making an appointment with the lecturer to discuss the issue or have they considered discussing it with friends on the course. Another prompt would be to ask if some of the weaknesses are more generic in nature and relate to study skills. For example if the comments specify that academic writing skills are poor what could the student do about it? Where could they go for help? Are there any student support centres in the university where they can get help?

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