Feedback on the outer limits

Posted by: Rebekha Naim, School of Media and Communication, RMIT University.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region.

Artist concept of Voyager 1 encountering a stagnation region. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Well done – HD”, read the scrawl across the top of the page. Nothing more! She placed the paper down on the table feeling angry and upset. All that work, all that effort – for what? To be given a simple compliment?

On his back page were a whole lot of words he could hardly read or understand. He had found the teacher’s response eventually – “Fail”. He had suspected he didn’t have a clue, and this confirmed it.

Giving feedback to students validates their learning and ensures they are on the right track. For most students, particularly students who sit at either end of the spectrum like the ones above, feedback needs to be explicit and appropriate. It needs to resonate with the learner providing closure on a task, or a step in the task, and pointing to what they have to do next.

Exemplary students commonly put extra effort into their assessments and expect detailed feedback, even if it is all positive. Transforming learners who already seem transformed is still possible. They need to see just how ‘right’ they are. That way, they will be more likely to keep performing. Anyone who has ever been on top of their game will know that staying on top is not easy. Every learner can still be given guidance on further development.

I firmly believe we achieve what others expect of us, so it is equally important to continue to challenge high achievers and extend their boundaries and capabilities even further. Offer advice on further development. Introduce them to RMIT’s LEAD program. Discuss research opportunities with them. Connect them with mentors and industry professionals.

Moving learners into new horizons beyond their own expectations supported by visionary educators. This is what tertiary education can aspire to do.

The learner who has failed or is at risk of failing needs careful consideration and your personal touch. But why aren’t the avenues above appropriate to them? Perhaps these activities, the ones that open up a bigger picture of your discipline or of learning in general, are what they need too?

More specifically, low performance should trigger a set of questions and response systems to improve the situation. Are you aware of any learning difficulties they may have? Are their English, literacy or numeracy skills letting them down? Could they be referred to the Disability and Liaison Unit? Are there personal or cultural reasons as to why they do not understand the material? Could there be personal problems that have affected them during this period? Do they need information about the university’s Counselling Service?

Will writing a paragraph on the back of their work actually help them to “get it?”

It’s important that lecturers and tutors identify how to support students who struggle early to avoid escalation of the problem and address issues quickly. In the TAFE environment it should be par for the course that struggling students are identified and supported. Once identified, struggling TAFE learners can be assisted through one-on-one sessions, extra classes, extra support material and support from Student Services. RMIT’s vast resources can address many underlying concerns, and staff PD sessions can help you to manage students who do not seem to be achieving their best.

Early intervention is key for students who might not be making a smooth transition into tertiary studies. Try to identify them in early assessments and formative tasks. The efforts of students who ‘struggle’ might not be that dissimilar to the efforts of their ‘high-achieving’ counterparts, despite the differences in their final output.

Once a student’s individual needs are met, someone who previously struggled can be transformed, a wonderful reward after a failed assessment. I once taught someone who suffered from bouts of depression. After not submitting yet another assignment he broke down in class. I encouraged him to see an RMIT counsellor, which he eventually did and the decision was the first of many positive changes he has since made to his life. He is now a successful IT programmer in his hometown of Darwin.

Assessment Rubrics

In the TAFE School of Media and Communication where I teach, assessment rubrics are used to give student feedback and they double-up as assessment tools as well. Used to grade students’ work by looking at a range of criteria, they can be applied to all tasks. There is a vast array of rubrics to be found on the internet to get you started (and they come in all sorts of formats). They can also be implemented in myRMIT/Blackboard.

They require every element being assessed to be listed on the rubric, with defined and clear differences between each level of achievement. It takes time to develop a robust assessment rubric that aligns closely with the assessment requirements. I would put aside three hours to develop one from scratch.

Developing a rubric with colleagues and industry professionals is even better. Distributed to students at the start of the course, an assessment rubric will give students (and you as their assessor) a clear understanding of what is required of them to achieve certain grades. For the student who achieves a good (but not outstanding) outcome, the rubric level descriptors gives them a clear indication of their achievement without vague adjectives or confusion about the distance they still need to travel.

Hopefully it moves them away from a comparison with their peers and their ‘rank’ in the class to an understanding of what they need to do to get better. Ideally, they would consult it before they approached their next task in your unit. Rubrics allow students to target their revision or improvement efforts.

Finally, I also recommend using self-review whenever possible. When a student hands in their work together with a self-assessment (either answering a few questions or as an analytic or holistic rubric) it re-affirms student understanding and their feedback can help guide yours.

Receiving a filled-in assessment rubric from a teacher highlights particular achievements in each area of the assessment easily. And a comment section allows for recognition of individual effort; particularly useful for students at either end of the spectrum, on the outer limits.

Do you have examples of feedback and assessment strategies that work? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

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