Sunday, July 14, 2013

Secrets of Perfect Student Feedback

One of the most common mistakes I see university lecturers make is to write too much feedback and then delay providing it to the student, to the point where it is no longer of use. If feedback is being given on weekly work, then it needs to be given that week, or at the latest the next week. Feedback on major assessment items needs to be given well before the student starts work on the next major assessment.

My course "ICT Sustainability" at the Australian National University received a top student feedback score last semester (5 out of 5). The students also rated the feedback they received during the course in support of learning at 5 out of 5.

One way a teacher can improve their student's learning is to think like an Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS). An ITS is a a computer program which provides prompt and individual feedback to students. Such a system keeps track of what each student is doing and how they are doing. The educator has to design exercises for the students, broken into detailed steps. They indicate not only what is the correct response at each step but the likely incorrect responses, so the can be programmed to steer the student back on track.

ITS can be useful where there is a set process for the student to learn. But it can result in a very process driven form of learning. Also ITS takes considerable resources to program.

But even without the use of ITS, any educational designer can consider how the learning task can be broken up and what are the desired responses from the student and likely mistakes they will make. The teacher can keep track of where each student is up to and provide timely feedback to each student.

Feedback accompanied by a mark is more likely to be read by the student (formative feedback accompanied by summative assessment). The mark doesn't need to be very large (one or two percent is enough to get a student's attention). The feedback only needs to be a sentence for two, or a few ticks on a standard table of responses (a rubric).
Feedback has to tell the student what they did wrong (preferably after telling them something they did right) and how they can do it better. Also there has to be the opportunity for the student to do better on a following assessable item.

There is no point in providing extensive feedback on a final assessment item for a course, which the student gets back after the course is over. All this does is to invite the student to appeal their final grade, as that is the only way for them to improve their assessment for the course.

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