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Assessment and feedback: getting the balance right

Assessment and feedback: getting the balance right

In my short time working with providers across the country, there are several common themes and topics of discussion. They include the obvious maths and English, work experience, teaching and learning and student progress. The other common topic and ongoing challenge is assessment and the quality of feedback. Many providers have ‘work scrutiny’ windows or review learners’ work during learning walks/observations but are any of these having an impact and improving the quality of learners’ work over time or the quality of feedback?

One of the challenges for providers around this issue is the differing expectations of awarding bodies and in some cases staff are almost scared of what to write because they don’t want to contravene the regulations. Add to this on-going changes with syllabuses, more teaching hours and larger groups. It is no surprise the quality of feedback is inconsistent.

So how do we get the balance and quality right? I would like to say less is more, mark less and mark better. Unfortunately that can only be applied in some aspects of provision. In other areas regular assessment and feedback are required. We need to focus on how to improve the quality of feedback without overly increasing time for tutors. I have spoken to many managers about assessment and homework schedules and the increasing pressure on tutors. Many providers are increasing the amount of formative assessment learners undertake to better prepare them for summative assessment. A logical approach but one that can increase marking for tutors. The use of peer marking/feedback appear to be underutilised in these cases. Yes, learners need to be trained on how to carry this out effectively and they need a framework, but, if done well, this can reduce the pressure on tutors and start to engage learners in a form of flipped learning which could be evolved and built on in the future. The use of marking templates for formative assessment with key criteria or expectations identified and some personalised comments may also reduce the marking pressure. Many staff rely on verbal feedback and often say to me, ‘I give loads of verbal feedback’. This is often true but when I speak to learners about the verbal feedback they very rarely remember what was discussed and they certainly don’t remember what needed to be improved or any subsequent targets. Utilise verbal feedback but think about how it can be recorded and then accessed by a learner.

In order to truly change and improve the quality of feedback, we need to change staff’s mind-set and perceptions of feedback. Often it is seen as a burden, instead staff need to approach feedback as another stage in the learners’ journey and part of their on-going progress and development. Not the end of it. Dylan Wiliam once described the difference in feeding back as a ‘health check’ (feedforward) Vs the post-mortem (feedback). How often do we see summative feedback as helping the learner in the next stage of their learning, or are we just marking an assignment against the criteria? 

All providers have assessment policies. What these outline is the provider’s expectations and includes specific guidance on awarding bodies and the turnaround of marked work. They do not always offer examples or guidance on what quality feedback should look like. Good feedback should enable a learner to be clear on what they have done well so they can replicate this in the future and it should identify what could have been improved (neither of these break an awarding body regulation). So what should it look like? Here are my four points to effective feedback:

  • Purposeful annotations – they should identify what has been done well and where elements can be improved (this doesn’t have to link to criteria). Avoid generic comments such as good or well done (these don’t help the learner)
  • Identify errors in maths and English – this should be consistent with your internal expectations e.g. SPAG policy. Any consistent error should result in a target or actions to improve
  • A brief summary that identifies key strengths and areas for improvement (this could be in the form of questions to promote reflection for the learner)
  • Learner’s comments or individual targets – this is important to continue the learning process and promote further reflection

There are no guarantees these will improve the quality of feedback. The true impact will be measured with learners’ work over time and grades. Are these improving? With all frameworks or policies, the challenge is to ensure they are consistently applied. Simple expectations will generally result in more consistency and training staff in these expectations will bring about a bigger impact.

By Edd Brown, Operations Director for Quality Improvement at FE Associates

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