“What does a tick mean?!” Exploring poor experiences of assessment and feedback through student experience research
  • June 30, 2017

“What does a tick mean?!” Exploring poor experiences of assessment and feedback through student experience research

Since the advent of the National Student Survey (NSS) assessment and feedback has received consistently lower ratings compared to other areas, however concerns in this area have been highlighted in institutional experience surveys going as far back as the late 1980s. The result is neither good for students nor good for institutions facing increased pressure from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). 

So what is it, after all this time, that’s wrong with assessment and feedback?

Our research with students suggests they can often feel assessment and feedback is delivered in a way that leads them to under-perform, by limiting continuous learning, compromising wellbeing, and undermining self-confidence and motivation in the longer term.

Stress, suppressed performance and loss of ambition

British school children are amongst the most tested in the world and the university experience is no different in many subjects. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the students we have spoken to tend to have very negative attitudes towards exams, with poor performance, limited feedback and questionable real-world application being their biggest concerns.

“Exams have always been an obstacle for me. They’ve never been something I can just jump over. I have to get the rope out and climb.”

Business Administration with Marketing student

Panic, anxiety and fear of the unknown are not uncommon during exam season, and the number of students seeking counselling for exam stress is on the rise. Indeed, for some students, such event-related anxiety can mark the beginning of more enduring mental health problems, rather than being merely a period of temporary pressure from which they quickly recover. For many of the students we speak to, the academic outcome of operating under these conditions is that they do not perform at anywhere near the level they believe themselves to be capable of.

Marks without meaning

Another complaint we hear from students in relation to exams is the lack of meaningful feedback, a gripe that arises in relation to all methods of assessment, but which is a particularly prominent concern about exams. After weeks of studying for an exam, many students will only receive a mark, with no indication of where they fell short or what they could have improved on. With this type of feedback it would be difficult to answer positively to the NSS question ‘I have received helpful comments on my work’.

The singular nature of formal examinations continues to fuel the debate about their utility as a method for assessing skills transferable to life in the real world. Students question the value of a two-hour assessment, reliant on recall from memory, and in many cases, being asked to produce their response in a handwritten format. They do not believe that these skills are likely to be relevant or useful for their graduate careers and lives; nor do feel that they provide an accurate reflection of what they can do.

“No one has ever come up to someone at work and said ‘I want you to write everything you know about subject X. Go!’ It just seems very artificial to me. It doesn’t seem to assess anything that is going to be relevant in the real world.”

Postgraduate student in law

Crowding out and delaying learning

It is important to remember that it is not just exams that students have to contend with during stressful periods of the year − they frequently coincide with coursework assignments, work placements, part-time jobs, family commitments and everything else life brings. Students say they would like greater communication between course leads and departments to prevent the bunching and clashing of exams and assignments, however our research indicates that they are often told simply to plan their own time more effectively. Up to a point, this response is reasonable; it becomes inadequate when it disregards the fact that many students juggle competing demands and pressures that are beyond their personal power to control.

“I mentioned the fact that it’s really difficult that a lot of the assignments are put together and I was basically torn to pieces. My personal tutor said ‘It’s your own fault’. Because we’re given the assignment dates at the start of the year. So the emphasis is on us to start early.”

History student

However, it is crucial to understand the argument for addressing the spacing and timing of assessment as a case for maximising the opportunity for learning and development, rather than as a concession to the weakness of human nature, or as an attempt to make university study an easy ride. The students we speak to are keen to obtain feedback on previous assignments so that they can use it as a source of learning they can apply to subsequent submissions, thereby making measurable improvements in their own performance.

Feedback without the feed

The new NSS questionnaire has also assessed how helpful the feedback students receive is. With fees rising and students becoming more switched on and performance-focused, the ideal feedback includes clear targets and next steps. Students don’t just want to know that they made an interesting point, they want to know why it was interesting and how they can produce work of a similar quality in subsequent assessments.

“Some lecturers will go through and actually annotate your work. Other lecturers will just tick it. What does a tick mean?!”

History student

The savvier student will arrange one-to-one catch-ups with lecturers and tutors, but many will go through university without talking through their grades with members of academic staff. Students recognise the practical difficulties of tutors replicating the personalised feedback they had become used to at sixth form and college in the university setting. However, this does not preclude exploration of alternative responses to their underlying need. For example, optional drop-in sessions at set times; promoting peer-to-peer dissemination and discussion of individually-received feedback; or setting aside course contact time for the sharing of areas of difficulty.

What’s next?

We need to delve beyond the bare NSS statistics if universities are to respond to the negative trends in ratings for assessment and feedback in ways that are practical and sustainable for both students and staff. With increased pressure from the TEF and the potential financial consequences of receiving a poor rating, universities need to be confident that any action they take to improve NSS scores is likely to deliver rapid results. Obtaining and intelligently applying student insight data is key to this endeavour.

If you would like a coffee with our Research Director Ben Hickman to discuss better understanding the assessment and feedback experience at your institution, please email ben.hickman@alterline.co.uk or call 0161 6050862.