With the end of formal teaching last week, the time has come for evaluation and reflection.
As part of my Social Writing project, I have been working my first-year student to develop a corpus of written and oral feedback regarding their experience of first-year assessment and feedback. Most of these will be discussed in detail later this month when the final report on the project is released. However, one point in particular caught my attention.
Almost anyone who works at a UK university will be familiar with the National Student Survey, the annual assessment of final-year student satisfaction. Reaction to this multiple-choice critique varies widely, but its effect on university policy seems to increase every year. Particularly worrying to university administrators is the consistently low scores given to feedback. These relatively low marks (across the sector) frighten and demoralise us. Why don’t they understand, lecturers lament. We give them more and more feedback every year, yet they continue to fill in that most abhorrent of all bubbles: strongly disagree. Several projects have been developed in response, such as It’s Good to Talk, which aims to reconcile these relatively low scores with what lecturers feel is a feedback smörgåsbord. Yet, simple tricks such as saying here is your feedback while handing back essays or beginning office-hour chats remain insufficient. I wonder, therefore, if we aren’t approaching the problem too directly.
My project’s aim was to encourage drafting and peer review amongst my student. Its aim was not to improve feedback dialogues between students and staff. Because of this, I have stumbled upon a very interesting piece of information. My students, without particular prompting, commented quite extensively on the feedback they had received. Most acknowledged that they had received a great deal of written feedback (and had the opportunity for verbal feedback as well) but that it was ultimately unhelpful because the lecturer never commented on the essay itself.
I raised an eyebrow and asked them to elaborate. What did they comment on then?
This was a pretty shocking revelation for me. I’ll admit, some of my students have very poor rhetorical skills (at least in their first few essays) and I do note down grammatical inelegancies, but I could not imagine any lecturer commenting solely on grammar and syntax. I inquired further and found that their definition of grammar was exceptionally wide, including everything from word choice to argument construction. Yet, even those who admitted they had written poorly didn’t want comments on this. They wanted feedback on what they deemed to be the important part of their essay; the content, the facts.
I understood. They were concerned that I had critiqued how they put their argument forth rather than if their argument was right. From my perspective lacks direct evidence to support this assertion meant that their argument was dubious, because they hadn’t provided proof that their quite bold statement was true. From their perspective, I was merely commenting that they had not put in enough statistics (or similar numerical evidence); an issue of form rather than substance.
As I look back over my most recent feedback sheets, I can see their point. To an untrained eye, my comments do seem quite general and don’t address the particular content of the essay itself. After marking four essays on the Kennedy Administration, I had not written the word Kennedy once.
So, how do I address this issue? How do I explain this disconnect to my students? I think, perhaps the best way is through Bloom’s unrevised Taxonomy.
|Level||Definition||Type of Comments||How to Improve||Mark if Succesful|
|Knowledge||Recall data or information.||Correction of specific facts.||Know correct facts.||Borderline Pass|
|Comprehension||Understand the meaning of reading.||Calls to paraphrase or be more rigours in the selection of your quotations. Commenting on repetition. Awkward grammar when using quotations.||Make sure that you understand the vocabulary (historiographical definitions) and what the authors you are referring to are arguing. Show this by effectively rephrasing their arguments to a) fit grammatically into your sentences b) support your argument without changing their meaning.||3:1|
|Application||Using evidence from secondary reading to address your question, rather than the one poised in the book or article you are reading.||Marginalia such as ‘how so?’ ‘how do you know?’ and ”corroborate!’ Description of writing as ‘narrative’ or ‘merely summarising’. Circling of multiple footnotes from a single source or page.||Use multiple sources to prove a single point. Provide direct evidence (taken from the secondary material) rather than quote the concluding points of the secondary authors.||2:2|
|Analysis||Discussing the academic merit of evidence or arguements.||Marginalia such as ‘how do you know?’ ‘representative?’ and ‘generalisation’. Description of writing as ‘narrative’ or ‘lacking engagement’.||Question the evidence used (or how it was collected) from your reading. Make sure you use other evidence (taken from other reading or personal research) rather than merely logic or personal preference. It is not what you believe is more sensible but what the evidence suggests is correct.||2:1|
|Synthesis||Bringing together reading and evidence from a variety of sources to be mutually supportive of your own argument||Marginalia such as ‘other interpretations?’ ‘True of all regions?’ and ‘What about ______?’ Circling of multiple footnotes from a single source or page. Long comments by marker engage with interpretation and possible other explanations for your evidence.||Use a variety of sources for a single point, but not simply those dealing directly with your question. Learn to integrate evidence from articles only tangentially related to the question at hand. Separate evidence from argument in your notes and be able to use them together or separately as your paper dictates.||High 2:1 / Low 1:1|
|Evaluation||Undertaking first-hand research or novel evaluation of established evidence.||Marginalia such as ‘good! what about _____’, ‘interesting! expand!’ and ‘have you thought about ______?’||Do your own independent research and put it in the context of other research that has been done elsewhere. Add something new to the conversation.||High 1:1|
Thus, there are only two stages when I will give comments on content in the way my students mean; either at the most basic level (they’ve just got it wrong) or the most advanced (they are providing genuinely new research or interpretation.) The vast majority of papers fall in the middle.
Why don’t I talk about your content until you reach the synthesis or evaluation level? Usually it is because you do have a basic grasp fo the facts, which I expect from all my students and isn’t worth commenting upon, but you have not yet presented anything with which I can engage on a detailed, evaluatory level. If you are merely repeating what others have said, all I can really do is comment on how well you’ve written up other people’s work.
It doesn’t mean I don’t care. It doesn’t mean I’ve not read your paper closely. Instead, I am merely concentrating on the most pressing issues at hand, moving you up the scale so we can have the deeper conversations we both desperately want.
*Image courtesy of Divergent Learner