Marking and feedback

In spite of the spirit-crushing loads, most of us keep on trying to say something hopeful. […] Instead of filling the pages with innumerable abbreviations in red pencil (“gr.,” “pn.,” “par.,” etc.), most of which most students ignore unless they are required to submit revisions, I usually manage to type discursive comments, trying to make them intelligible as direct talk to the student’s specific problems.  I ask myself “What is the problem that this student can most profitably concentrate on now?”  […]  The student receives what amounts to a letter from me about the project, and ideally he or she does not get the impression that writing the next paper is a hopeless task.  It is true that my “letter” does not take less time than “grading” used to take me when I felt responsible for marking every comma splice and dangler; it usually takes more.  But the time does not feel like something robbed from my life. Wayne C Booth. The Vocation of a Teacher: Rhetorical Occasions 1967-1988. University of Chicago Press, 1988, p. 238.

Marking season has arrived.  After the collective sigh of relief that met the end of the teaching semester, staff at the University of Hull and across the academic world are now assaulting one another with stacks of essays, exams and so forth (‘You’re giving me that pile?!  You should see the size of the one I’ve got for you!’).  I thought I’d take a brief break from marking and feedback to write a blog about marking and feedback.  It is a topic dear to my heart, and I have written about it briefly before (and will probably repeat myself to some extent here).  I love tinkering with and trying to refine the mechanisms for my written feedback.  I’ve come to believe that an effective feedback sheet needs to possess the following qualities:

1 It probably can’t be purely generic, but needs rather to be module- and task-specific.  I fear I’ve become slightly notorious in my departmental office for using my own feedback forms (which has necessitated extra care to ensure that everyone who needs a copy gets a copy, as the generic forms automatically produce a carbon underlay).

2 Following on from the previous point, the feedback sheet should include reference to the specific assessment criteria for the task in question, and these criteria need to be circulated in advance.  For a long time I resisted writing anything other than totally freeform comments, as I wanted my feedback to address the student individually and authentically, and I felt that measuring their work against excessively prescriptive and pre-established criteria might get in the way of this, and prevent me recognising and responding to excellent things that the student might have done outside these categories.
I suppose it’s inevitable that one becomes slightly less romantic as one’s teaching career progresses.  I now think that these pre-published criteria are important and usually very helpful to students.  They know in advance how they will be assessed (which is not the same as knowing what they ought to write), and this can alleviate anxiety and in most cases I think it leads to better writing.  In any case, one needn’t jettison the overall summary comment; it can still be added at the end.
This year I have for the most part combined a general comment with a grid of assessment criteria and levels of attainment – ie. a tickbox.  In my latest round of feedback sheets though, I’ve broken down the grid.  I now have a page of assessment criteria, still with a tick-grid to indicate level of attainment, but I’ve also left space for a comment relating to each criterion.  I’ve found that this has really focused my marking method, and I hope my students will find it useful too.

3 The sheet should be set up so that a ‘private’ conversation between the examiners (internal and external) can occur if necessary.  In the interests of consistency across a cohort, it’s sometimes useful to include a brief comment for the benefit of other examiners along the lines of ‘I think this essay deserves this precise grade because it’s slightly sharper than this other essay in the pile, which does similar things.’  (Of course, essays are marked on their own merits in line with assessment criteria and not to a curve, but when it comes down to the fine details of a mark here or a mark there, it’s useful to have some submissions that act as points of reference.)  Clearly, it’s inappropriate for another student to see such a comment (some – most? – examiners are also of the opinion that students should not be privy to disagreements between markers, and should not see comments or suggested grades that are in sharp contrast with one another), so two slightly different copies of the sheet need to be produced: a file copy, and a student copy.

Here (for those able to download/view .doc files) is one of my latest template sheets.  I’ll probably do more tinkering next year.

Feedback welcome!