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Making the Most of Feedback

What is feedback?

Feedback is communication to the student about how they are performing, how well they are doing at acquiring and mastering the knowledge and skills that teachers are trying to impart to them. Feedback frequently comes in regard to a specific assessment performance; how you did on a particular essay or exam. But it is important to realise that such specific feedback usually communicates something more general about the state of your abilities and skills, that points beyond the specific instance of assessment. It is also valuable to appreciate that not all feedback is linked to a specific instance of assessment.

The importance of feedback

Learning is a process of communication between students and teachers, and feedback is essential to that process. It helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, zero in on problem areas, and devise strategies to improve your performance. It helps you recognise variability and trends in your own performance, and where you stand in regard to your peers. Feedback is not an end in itself, but a tool for advancing the more important goal of learning.

What forms does it take?

It is important to recognise the variable forms that feedback takes. There is more to it than just comments on individual pieces of work.

  • When we think of feedback, we usually think first of written (usually on a standard form that includes tick boxes as well) comments on specific essays, dissertations and sometimes on exams. Such feedback aims to give you some explanation of the mark you received, pointing out the main strengths and weaknesses, and suggesting what would have improved the performance. As already suggested, such feedback tells you something about that particular performance, but also about your general academic abilities.
  • In SPS, for pre-honours courses, we also offer generalised feedback on exam performance to the class as a whole, via Learn, along with an opportunity to view your exam script in light of that feedback. While it may seem that non-specific feedback won't explain the mark you got, markers find that the strengths and weaknesses that affect your mark are mostly of generic types. Trying to understand your particular mark and performance in the context of generalised feedback may well be more informative than individualised feedback.
  • Sometimes students participate in group projects, for which there is some kind of combination of assessment of individual participation and of the group, performance as a whole. This may involve students assessing and commenting on each other's contribution to the project.
  • It is important to remember that marks are themselves a form of feedback, providing a ranking of your performance in relation to others doing the same piece of assessment, and in relation to general standards of assessment performance. Marking descriptors are intended to give a guide to how assessment performance is judged. They provide a basic context for reading and understanding the meaning of a mark.
  • Some courses provide opportunities to submit non-assessed work, often as a preparation for work that will be assessed later. Feedback on non-assessed work can be just as vital as feedback on assessed work, and should be taken seriously and made the most of.
  • Particularly at honours level, supervision of dissertations and research projects involves considerable feedback along the way to producing the piece of work that will be assessed. In cases like this there is feedback both before and after the assessment.
  • One of the reasons you are encouraged to participate actively in discussions in classes and tutorials, is that this is one of the most fruitful opportunities for feedback, for trying out ideas, exploring your understanding of material, and raising questions. It is for this reason that some courses attach a mark to tutorial performance; on the other hand, when tutorial performance is not assessed, this provides an ideal environment to gain feedback without the pressure of formal assessment. Make the most of it.

How can students get the most out of feedback?

First off, as suggested above, you should appreciate the various forms that feedback takes. Beyond that, here are some suggestions:

  • Learn more about study and assessment skills. There is a lot of helpful literature and guidance available. Two places to start are: (1) The Library. Books on study skills are generally found under the Library of Congress call numbers LB2395. You can always ask a librarian for guidance. (2) The Institute for Academic Development (IAD).
  • Try to consider the various forms of feedback you receive not as isolated events, but as part of an overall pattern of performance, identifying general areas of strength and weakness. This should become clearer the more you are assessed and the more feedback you receive as you progress through your programme. If you detect a consistent area where you need to improve, seek advice from tutors and course conveners about what to do.
  • In the first instance, when trying to understand a mark and any associated comments, read these in the context of School marking descriptors. Marking descriptors are necessarily general, but may help put the feedback you've received in a wider context.
  • If you know that a classmate has done particularly well, you might ask to read their essays. They may say no, but they might also be flattered. Doing this will help you get a realistic picture of what good coursework looks like, what can be achieved, and what kinds of performance your own work is being evaluated in relation to.
  • If you have questions about a mark and associated comments on coursework, you are always entitled to seek clarification from the marker (usually a tutor or a course convener). Bear in mind that work is anonymised before marking, and that staff often have to mark large quantities of work in a short time-span. They may need some time to re-familiarise themselves with the piece of work in question.

SPS policies on assessment feedback

In line with University policy, assessment in SPS operates according to the following principles:

  • Feedback on coursework is provided in written form. You may also ask your tutor or course organiser for additional comment and advice, where appropriate. (You should be aware however, that if you ask for a mark to be reviewed, and this request is granted, the mark could be revised either upwards or downwards.)
  • Essays and exam scripts are anonymised to prevent the marking process from being biased by the markers knowledge of the particular student. As noted above, this means that markers can't be expected connect you with your work unless you approach them to discuss a particular piece of assessment feedback.
  • There is a three working week turn-around time expected for mid-semester coursework assessment. This aims to get feedback into your hands in time for you to benefit from it in final assessment. If this turn-around time is not being met you should bring this to the attention of the relevant head of subject.
  • The School is required to retain exam scripts as a record of exam performance, and cannot return these to students.

How can students raise issues about feedback to teaching staff?

There are many channels for communicating with staff about the feedback process:

  • As indicated above, you are entitled to raise issues about feedback on a specific piece of your own coursework with the marker (tutor or course organiser). Staff office hours provide a good opportunity for doing this.
  • You can raise more general issues with your student representatives. There are normally separate sets of class representatives for Year 1, Year 2, and Honours, in each subject area. These representatives are regularly brought together within subject areas in Staff-Student Liaison Committees to discuss any issues students want to raise about the learning experience.
  • Two or more student representatives in SPS are also members of our Undergraduate Teaching Committee, and this would be the logical place to raise issues that have School-wide implications. Students can also raise issues directly with the Director of Undergraduate Teaching.
  • Course evaluation forms also provide an opportunity to comment on feedback provision in regard to a specific course.
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