Improving, Holding Steady and Going Downhill – Giving Students Useful Feedback

I’ve written before about the slightly fuzzy nature of marks but that, overall, we can roughly class marks into ‘failing’, ‘doing okay’ and ‘doing really well’, One thing that I think is really useful is giving students an indication of how they are going in terms of getting better, staying where they are or falling behind.

This is hard throughout courses unless we’ve done some important things, and we’ve also committed to some things across an entire set of courses, like a degree. I’ve covered some of these before but this is a lot more focused.

  1. We’ve tied the assessment firmly into the course so that success in one aspect is a reasonable indicator of continued success.
  2. Students can get early indication when they’re not getting it – whether it’s quick quizzes, feedback on assignments or activities in lectures. Early warning signs are always there.
  3. WE follow up on the early warning signs as well to warn students of what’s going on.

It’s the whole instrumentation, measurement and action routine that I’ve been banging on about for three months now. But let’s put it into a tighter framework, in some senses, with a looser measurement system. We’re only worried about improvement, stability or decline. But is it ever that simple?

I honestly don’t really care if students get 87 or 90 in many ways – High Distinction is High Distinction. If a student gets a series of marks as 86, 91, 88, 90 they’re holding steady. I certainly don’t want them banging on my door, lamenting their decline, if their next mark is an 85 – this is stable and it’s good. But what about this sequence: 50, 52, 57, 53? This is a much riskier proposition, of course, because it’s so much closer to the fail line. Being under 55 is wandering into the zone where one bad mark or missed question could fail you. You don’t want to be stable here.

So, even with a simple three-way framework – it’s pretty obvious that stability is relative. What we really have is different zones where only some of these activities are valid, which should come as no surprise to anyone. 🙂

Below 60, stability doesn’t really cut it and decline is completely unacceptable. Below 60, you really want to be above 60. Yes, 50-60 is a pass but it’s also an indicator that you’re just scraping by – an unlucky day could cost you 6 months of work. Above 60, up to say 75? Stability is ok but we should really be aiming for improvement – if the student can. Above 75? Well, some people will never get much beyond that and all their striving will result in a hard-earned stability that may still taste a little bitter at times. This is where our knowledge of the student comes in.

Not knowing a student’s ability means that you risk telling them to improve when there’s nothing else left and they’ve given all they can. So let me throw out my classification framework and replace it with two questions for the student:

How do you feel about your mark?

Do you think you could have done better?

Balancing that with your knowledge of the student, and guiding them through the thinking process, will give them a better idea of what they can and can’t do. Did they really struggle to get that 66? No? Well, they could have worked harder and maybe got a better mark. That 75 nearly killed them and they really put their all into it? Well that’s one heck of a fine mark.

We all know that very few people know themselves and that’s why I like to try and help them understand why they’re doing what they’re doing and, maybe, once in a while, help them to either accept the fruits of their labours, or to strive that little bit more, if they still have something left to strive with and think it’s worthwhile.



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