Feedback to students on their work at university has been the subject of endless research as we attempt to find more effective ways to help them learn from their performance. We all know it is a struggle for lecturers to turn work around quickly but even when we manage to get it back to students in a timely way, there are numerous ways in which our efforts can be wasted:
- It can be hard to read;
- It is hard for students to interpret (language, terminology);
- It comes too late to be useful for other assignments/ exams in a module;
- Students don’t see it as useful for other assignments;
- Students don’t pay attention to it or act on it;
- One tutor’s feedback may not apply to another tutor’s work
- It tends to emphasise ‘surface’ features such as spelling or referencing
- Complex ideas cannot be communicated in a sentence or two.
Even if we could tackle these barriers, they presuppose that the idea of lecturers commenting on work is basically the right thing to do if only we can find out how to assemble and communicate the message effectively. David Boud and his colleagues at Deakin University in Australia are coming at the problem from a different angle. To me, their work seems to be based on two ideas: one, that we need to prepare students to learn independently and, two, that we need to remember that the term feedback originates in a cyclical or two-way process of monitoring and changing a system and, not, as we commonly use it now, as a one way transmission of information.
How do these relate to feedback? The link is evaluative judgement. Let’s start with the first idea. The ability to engage in lifelong learning is a crucial 21st century graduate capability. However, traditional assessment practices privilege the teacher as expert, creating dependency amongst students for information about how well they are doing in the form of feedback and grades. Boud and colleagues argue that we need to help students develop the ability to seek, generate and use feedback on their performance so they can continue to find and use that information in whatever employment or learning context they find themselves in after higher education.
The second idea underpins the view that much conventional university feedback is ‘dangling data’ (Boud 2016). We send a feedback ‘signal’ out but no response is required or checked for. We often don’t know if the student has grasped what we say or made any adjustment to their understanding. The feedback cycle is broken. All the effort that staff put into creating the feedback ‘signal’ is of little use if it does not result in adjustment to the student’s understanding.
Evaluative judgement takes an alternative perspective on feedback, using it to support students’ ability to learn from their performances but also to continue learning once they leave university. Evaluative judgement is defined by Ajjawi et al (2018) as the “capability to make decisions about the quality of work of self and others”. Employing assessment opportunities to help students grasp the expectations (standards, quality) of assessment tasks, judge their work in relation to those expectations and take action to improve builds on existing concepts such as formative assessment, peer review and assessment literacy. It gradually transfers the agency, albeit scaffolded, for generating and using feedback from the tutor to the student. It involves strategies such as developing and working with criteria, seeking feedback, active engagement with varied exemplars of work, self and peer review and feedback dialogues. Lecturers continue to provide feedback but within an evaluative judgement framework. Evaluative judgement attempts to create a virtuous feedback cycle where students are increasingly able to understand the ‘signals’ from multiple sources and take action in response.
It is argued that Evaluative judgement is linked to raising achievement as a greater understanding of standards enables students to improve their work. The skills of evaluative judgement are also important for graduates to be safe and effective professionals with the ability to judge their own performance against the appropriate standards. Such skills allow students to know whether their work is up to standard and, importantly, when they need to ask for help from others or undertake further learning.
The imperative to develop Evaluative Judgement is changing approaches to assessment feedback where the emphasis is less on monologic information (Nicol 2010), delivered in one direction from teacher to student, and more on dialogic methods. Feedback should serve the function of progressively enabling students to better monitor, evaluate and regulate their own learning, independently of the teacher.
I am looking forward to working with Lancaster colleagues in the workshop: Developing evaluative judgement: using assessment to create 21st century graduates on 18th April. It will be an opportunity to debate this emerging idea for assessment reform. Does it stand up to scrutiny? Can it be adopted in our massified system with large class sizes, limited opportunity for dialogue with students and moving on every unit to different teachers who may not know about past performance? Can students be helped to grasp the idea? The workshop will examine the theoretical background but also devote a substantial proportion of the time to exploring a range of strategies for developing evaluative judgement through our assessment methods and enabling delegates to consider the implications and possibilities for their own teaching. I look forward to seeing you there.
Ajjawi, R. (in press) Conceptualising evaluative judgement for sustainable assessment in higher education in Boud et al (in press)
Boud, D (2016) Rethinking feedback for greater impact on learning, Presentation to HUBS workshop, University of Bristol.
Boud, D & Molloy, E (2012) Feedback in higher and professional education, London: Routledge
Boud, D. et al (in press) Developing Evaluative Judgement: Assessment for Knowing and Producing Quality Work . Routledge
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