Better learning means less assessment and more feedback

Yesterday I took part in a meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and a representative of the Students Union, that generated quite a few ideas which I hope will be implemented pretty soon.

Positive though the discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

14 Responses to “Better learning means less assessment and more feedback”

  1. I would love to think that we could implement this where I work but wonder if it needs Oxbridge levels of resources to implement properly i.e. weekly tutorials?

    • Weekly tutorials play a role, undoubtedly, but it’s a myth that they’re confined to Oxbridge. We have weekly Skills in Physics tutorials at Sussex, and there we’re similar arrangements in Cardiff.

      But the main point of the meeting I attended on Friday is how little use universities have so far made of the potential for giving feedback using digital media…

      • At manchester I had two weekly tutorials (4 students and 1 tutor) where we went through problem sheets, which included “challenge questions’ which were substantially harder. This did not count towards assessment, though the exams at the end of each semester did (as did the weekly lab work).

      • “but it’s a myth that they’re not confined to Oxbridge”

        A myth that they are confined to Oxbridge?

      • OK.

  2. Hmm….

    Learning for Learning’s sake is a lovely idea but … Universities are not for a five percent elite anymore. We are paid huge amounts of public money to educate forty percent of the nation. So we have to do what the Government wants. UK PLC is not interested in the personal development of our students. They want (a) trained workers and (b) lots of passes.

    If we go back to non-modular, non continuous methods, we will have many failures at those good old fashioned finals. We will not then be delivering on what the Government has paid us to do.

    Or we can give the money back, and three quarters of the Universities will close.

    • I’m not arguing for scrapping modules or returning to finals. The problem with modules is that there are too many of them, they’re too small, too compartmentalised, and too focussed on box ticking. I’m arguing that there should be far less summative assessment per module and fare more learning through feedback.

      I’m not arguing for a return to five-percent elitism either. I think we should be striving to educate more people but better. The current system is producing too many graduates with too little real education.

  3. My own experience was supervisions in groups of 2 or 3 with the supervisor. No continual assessment (just end of year exams – and only the third year results counted towards the degree), but nowhere to hide. The academic staff pretty much managed to effortlessly communicate to us that progress and outcome was our affair…their job was to open up the drama and delights of their subject to us. If we did nothing, they refused to supervise us and students were in very hot water. We had the whole year to get ourselves together, without being continually assessed (which, somehow, reduced the pressures). Not sure I’d have liked continually assessed modules…..

  4. […] Yesterday I took part in a meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative …  […]

  5. I don’t know how it is now (probably worse), but I liked the way physics was organized at the University of Hamburg when I studied there. The marks were based only on 5 oral exams for the Vordiplom (something like an MSc or Bachelor as far as the level goes, but at that time it was only an internal qualification and a requirement to continue for the Diplom (rough equivalent of a Master, but including a one-year thesis (and, if one manages everything in the nominal time, 4 years of lectures, labs etc)). For the Diplom, there were 4 oral exams and the mark for the thesis counted twice. So, the only assessment which “counted” was in these oral exams (and the thesis).

    In order to qualify for the oral exams, various qualifications had to be met. Usually, this was for completing a tutorial course which accompanied a lecture series. The usual arrangement was that one had to get a certain fraction of possible points a) on homework problems and b) on a test at the end of the semester. So, there was constant feedback on how one was doing, but there was no pressure to get the highest possible marks, since at the end of the semester it was only pass/fail, a pass needed in order to register for the oral exam. (There were also requirements for lab work, for giving seminar talks etc; each oral exam had its own set of qualifications, i.e. certificates saying one had passed.) The oral exams were at the end of the studies (one could choose to have them before or after the thesis work), or at roughly the halfway point for the Vordiplom, so cramming for the exam and then forgetting was not an option, since the exam might be 2 or 3 years after the corresponding lecture.

    The oral exam was conducted by a professor (one could choose one’s examiner) and there was always another person present who took notes and occasionally asked questions, clarified things etc. (This other person could be anyone who had a Diplom; usually someone working in the professor’s group.) Also, other students could sit in and listen if it was OK with the person having the exam.

    • Another advantage is that there was flexibility in the scheduling. While some courses had others as prerequisites (not formally, but of course one would hear introductory quantum mechanics before advanced quantum mechanics), not all did. For example, electrodynamics could be studied before or after thermodynamics. One could then more or less set one’s own pace, leaving out a course if otherwise the load was heavy (perhaps due to elective courses, one’s minor etc or perhaps due to external circumstances) or, if there was no scheduling conflict, doing more than the nominal number per semester. Also, if one wanted to hear a course given by a particular person, one could hear it earlier or later than one otherwise would have.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Peter (and Andy L):

    The student body today is indeed very different from that of the old elitist 5% days. But I would argue that this makes the way that you and I were taught more important to apply today, not less. Like you, I was a Cambridge undergraduate, and the majority of the hours devoted to physics were not in class, but in grinding through problems to hand in in advance of the supervisions. I dug one of my old undergraduate folders out the other day, to compare with how I’m lecturing that material today, and was struck by just how much hand-in work I did: 2-3 times as many sheets as my lecture notes.

    I didn’t do this work for marks, nor for written feedback, since there weren’t many comments on the scripts. The feedback was the hour spent defending what you’ve done interactively; and it was the fear of being shamed in that encounter that drove me to do as much work as I did.

    It seems to me that the modern “more average” student needs this sort of feedback in particular. Palming them off with covering their script with red ink is a poor substitute – and a very blunt weapon: most of their errors are relatively trivial and obvious to them when pointed out, but a few are deep misunderstandings that need to be probed and diagnosed.

    As an example of the latter, I was recently tutoring a junior honours class where quite a few people were taking f(x)=cos 2x and deducing f(x+P)=cos(2x+P). In writing, this might just seem a slip of the pen, but in conversation it was clear that the students concerned had never learned to think of a function as a slot machine: f( ) where the empty slot is where you insert a number. Once they realised that cos 2x was really cos 2( ), they could understand where they’d gone wrong.

    This personal contact is 99% of what matters. In Edinburgh, we can’t afford the full Oxbridge system, but (partly at my instigation, I’m proud to say), we do run workshops where each (core) lecture comes with the same time again in classes where they can split into small groups and interact with a posse of circulating tutors. The student:staff ratio in these sessions is about 6:1, so in effect they get an Oxbridge supervision 1/3 of their time. This isn’t cheap, but it’s effective.

    But when it comes to the national student survey, Edinburgh never seems to score well on “feedback”. This seems to be because the students think this means lots of red ink on handins. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of giving them what they want: the handin work they do is too little to cover the material comprehensively (more, and they’d complain), and to repeat the above: it’s so inefficient to try to write blanket comments instead of just having quasi 1-to-1 discussions with the students. We need to keep giving them what they need educationally, not do something inferior because it gives the customer what they think they want.

    • It is similar here at Sussex: we have workshops in every module, often right after the lectures, attended by staff and associate tutors.

  7. […] Union, that generated quite a few useful ideas. Looking through my back catalogue I realise that around this time year I was at a similar event based in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences of which I am […]

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