Feedback – The breakfast of champions

There was an interesting piece of research that came out recently, it referred to something called “Temporary mark withholding”. This as the name might suggest is providing students with written feedback but without marks. On the face of it this might seem odd and frankly unhelpful, how can you judge your performance if you don’t know how you compare against what is expected?

To answer that question, you need to ask a far more fundamental one, what’s the purpose of giving feedback in the first place?

Feedback – task or ego
We need to separate feedback from criticism which often implies that the person giving it is trying “to find fault”, although it’s possible to make it sound a little more positive by calling it constructive criticism. In simple terms criticism is more about what was wrong in the past whilst feedback directs you towards what you should do to improve in the future. But when we are thinking in terms of learning it gets a little more complicated, Dylan William talks about whether its ego involving or task involving feedback. The first of these would include offering praise such as “well done you have produced an excellent answer” but he states this is rarely effective and can actually lower achievement. However when the feedback focuses on what the student needs to do to improve, and explains how they can do it, then you get a significant impact on student achievement.

He goes on to say that “good feedback causes thinking, the first thing a student needs to do when they receive feedback is not to react emotionally, not disengage – but think”. It might be worth adding that Dylan William is talking about the impact of feedback on student learning not on how the student might feel in terms of motivation, self-confidence etc. There is clearly a place for ego type feedback it’s just not that effective when sat alongside a direct instruction because the emotional response often blocks or detracts what needs to be understood for the student to improve.

Formative and Summative assessment
There is one last piece of information that will help us make sense of the reasons why temporary mark withholding might work, the difference between formative and summative assessment.

Summative – The purpose of summative assessment is to “sum up” student learning at the end of a chunk of learning or completion of a course and compare it against a standard, normally a pass rate. This is why exams are often criticised, it’s not that testing is bad, it’s how the results are used, often polarising and narrowing opinion as to an individual’s performance, pass and you’re a hero, fail and you’re a villain. It gets worse when you then put those results into a league table and publish them, with the winners at the top and losers at the bottom for all to see and draw often incorrect conclusions.

Summative assessment is however valuable, if you score below the target, it tells you that more effort or work is needed, also that you are not performing well on a particular topic, but it provides no guidance as to what you need to do to improve.

Formative – The purpose of formative assessment is to monitor progress on an ongoing basis in order to help the teacher identify the “gap” between what the student knows and needs to know. This is where the magic happens, firstly in finding out where the gap is e.g. Where is the student currently compared to where they need to be, then figuring out the best way of getting them to that higher standard e.g. what do they need to do to improve. Formative assessment can be a test, a quiz or simply observation.

Lessons for students
And this is why holding back the marks works, what the piece of research (et al) highlighted, is that when students get their marks, they effectively prioritise the grades over the written comments. The good students ignore the comments because they don’t think they have anything to learn, and the weaker students are demotivated so also ignore them.

The key point for students is this, by all means look at the mark but resist that emotional (ego) reaction to pat yourself on the back or beat yourself up. Read all the comments with an open mind, asking two simple questions, can I see that there is a gap between my answer and the model answer and secondly do I know exactly what to do next to close it? The feedback, if it is good of course should make this as easy a process as possible.

The fact that your script might only say “see model answer” or have a cross with the correct number written next to it, is more an example of poor marking with little or no feedback. Perhaps you should return your script providing the marker/teacher with some feedback highlighting the gap between good marking and bad marking but most importantly what they should do to improve…..

And if your interested, here is the link to Dylan William explaining the importance of formative assessment.

Reference – Kuepper-Tetzel & Gardner – Jackson & Marks, 2016 – Taras, 2001, Winstone et al., 2017 – Ramaprasad, 1983

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