ECM Faculty Focus
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Why Don't Students Bother to Collect Their Marked Assignments?
Recently I came across a fascinating paper written by Steve Draper at the University of Glasgow which explains why so many students don't bother to look at the detailed feedback that dedicated tutors and lecturers have written on their work. Many staff have commented to me how frustrated they feel when students can't even be bothered to collect their work when it is returned to them in lectures. Steve writes so clearly that, to me, his explanations seem obvious.
He opens the paper with a story about an incident when he asked a student what she thought about the feedback provided in first-year psychology classes. "She paused for a minute, and then said that all she wanted to know was whether she was on track for becoming a psychology student, or whether she should change her major to geography."
This reveals that the student was only interested in a broad indication of how well she was doing relative to her expectations: she wasn't interested in any of the detailed feedback because she still had not made up her mind whether she was even going to study psychology at all.
Steve explains that most teachers think that they are providing students with feedback to help them do better at the task on which they have been assessed. There is an implicit assumption by the teacher that the student wants to study the subject and do better at it. However, this assumption is based on flawed thinking.
He summarises some of the different ways in which students will interpret feedback when they don't get marks as high as they expected:
- I did not use the best information or method for the task, but I can improve and do better next time.
- I did not leave myself enough time to do it well. Time is always limited: if I had put in more time I would have got a better mark. I don't need to know what I did wrong.
- I should have figured out what the requirements were before I started.
- The feedback tells me that there are things that I just cannot do: I should think about focusing on a different subject.
- The marks are all over the place: other people did more than I did but got worse marks. If I do the same thing again I will get a better mark because it is just a random process.
- The marker didn't see that he was wrong and I was right. He didn't spend enough time understanding what I had written to figure that out. If I have time I will ask for my paper to be re-marked by somebody who knows better.
Steve makes the point that there are several different aspects of student behaviour that feedback needs to regulate. I have added some from the work of my recent students interviewing their peers.
- Feedback will help me figure out what I don't know yet so I know where to focus my learning efforts.
- Feedback will understand better how well I know the stuff that I do know so that I know whether to spend more time on practice.
- How much more or less effort I need to put in for the tasks like this in future.
- I need to know whether my study methods are appropriate: maybe I should be studying in a different way.
- Maybe I just need to persist: I will just try again next time.
- Maybe I need to think about doing a different kind of course or degree.
- May be the lecturer isn't really teaching us stuff that we need: I will ask somebody else for advice.
- Maybe if I started on the assignment earlier, it would give me time to get help from the tutor in understanding what's required.
- Maybe if I left it later, there would be other students who had figured out how to do the assignment who could show me and help me avoid the same mistakes next time.
Steve raises the question: is it better to devote time on 'feedforward' activities with students, watching their work and giving them advice as they do it, or is it better to devote the time and resources to providing feedback?
Whether we are providing feedforward advice or feedback assessment, it is much more useful for the student if we can recognise which of the behaviours the student needs to devote attention to: better understanding, better time management, more effort or less, more attention to detail and checking, more practice, attention to learning specific material, seeking feedback earlier, or simply reflecting on how confident she or he feels about the subject material. Then we can give appropriate advice along with the feedback. Much of this can be handled verbally between the tutor and the student when the marked work is returned.
Control engineers will recognise the classic difficulties of multivariable control systems in this problem.
Steve reviews results from psychology studies on the effects of different kinds of feedback such as praise for effort or praise for smartness. Then he goes on to explain why many students don't bother to look at formative feedback like marks on weekly tutorial assignments.
(Note: Formative feedback is intended to provide guidance to students on how to change their learning and working behaviours. The other kind of feedback, summative feedback, is intended to measure the level of student achievement during the whole course, like the final examination.)
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