A Student-Centred Review of Assessment and Feedback
Written by Gillian Ulph and Dr Eleanor Aspey
In the summer of 2022, we ran a project funded by the SoSS Scholarship Support Fund to review undergraduate assessment and feedback methods and processes in the Department of Law. This formed part of a wider review of assessment and feedback for the development of our new undergraduate Law programmes, with this project focusing on the assessment process from the student perspective, looking at the materials presented to students in relation to assessment and the way in which students understand assessment and feedback.
We worked with students in four separate sessions (using the micro-sprint format developed by John Owen), with each 3-hour session exploring specific aims and focusing on producing tangible outputs using the following questions:
- Can we make our assessment materials, format and communication clearer and more supportive?
- Do students understand what our marking criteria mean, and if not, how could we develop them?
- How could we improve student understanding of the purpose and practice of assessment at university?
- How could we improve student understanding of the process and role of feedback at university and how can we support students to make the best use of different types of feedback?
In each session the micro-sprint comprised two members of academic staff from Law, five undergraduate students from different years and Law programmes, a student intern and one of the Humanities eLearning technologists. The teams then had an opportunity to reflect on the outputs once all the sessions were completed. The funding enabled us to pay the student intern and provide vouchers to the student participants as recognition of their contribution to the project.
The team reviewed the range of materials available to students, including the Law UG Assessment Handbook, assessment coversheets, guidance and application forms for mitigating circumstances, extensions and appeals.
The key issues raised in the discussions with the students were:
- Easily finding and accessing up to date and key information about assessment to avoid relying on informal routes of communication with peers
- Clarity and consistency in assessment terminology, avoiding assumptions that all students will be familiar with the terms and processes used in higher education
- Having positive and encouraging language when dealing with assessment and particularly in relation to support around mitigating circumstances and appeals
- Offering more guidance on the assessment process, including how marks are agreed and awarded, and the quality assurance mechanisms for designing and reviewing assessments and for individual and cohort student performance
We produced annotated versions of several of the documents and templates for new documents which could be used to enhance the assessment process for students. In addition we made proposals which include developing integrated Assessment Folders for programmes and course units on Blackboard, a dynamic webpage to replace the range of static information documents currently provided, new assessment information templates to be used for each type of assessment and introducing a process diagram for assessment queries.
Our findings demonstrate the importance of regular, holistic reviews of assessment information and materials to ensure that ad hoc individual changes do not inadvertently create further complexity.
Although we wanted to focus on how students understand the marking criteria, the first issue was that students had very little awareness of the importance of the criteria and their purpose for staff or students. Even during our discussions they could not easily relate them to assessments, marked work or feedback that they had previously encountered. Additionally, the second issue identified in our session was that the current criteria lack certain skills, do not adequately or consistently differentiate grade boundaries and use terminology that is unclear and misleading.
In response to these two issues, we produced annotated versions of current marking criteria that could form the basis for the development of new criteria, and templates for new assessment documents that clearly link to the criteria to support students to better understand and use the criteria.
Our findings here reinforce the importance of the current focus on reviewing and developing marking criteria in other Schools and within the Faculty, but also emphasise the need to do more to support for students to understand and use these criteria during their studies.
Assessment and Feedback Literacy
Although we set out to consider these issues in separate sessions, the linked nature of these topics meant that discussions naturally covered both and so we combined them for our report.
Of course, we already know that there are challenges in these areas so our focus was on improving student understanding of the purpose and practice of assessment and feedback. This was the most challenging area because staff and student perspectives were initially very different, and we had to start by helping the student participants understand the pedagogy before we were able to address ways to support other students to become assessment and feedback literate.
This lack of understanding also meant that there was a significant amount of confusion in relation to these topics, and we noted a real lack of trust and perceptions of unfairness in the assessment process. The students on the team found our discussions helpful themselves and felt that they would be helpful for their future studies. They also wanted to ensure that other students could understand these areas and welcomed proposals to give more support. Our proposals are therefore focused on providing support at the different stages of the student lifecycle.
Crucially it was clear that more discussion about assessment is needed when students arrive at university, or even before this time, to better acquaint students with the format and purpose of assessments in higher education and address misconceptions early on.
We then proposed a programme of support and engagement across each year, with assessment roadmaps at programme and course unit level and general and targeted support from staff and peers for different forms of assessment and for individual students. Our full proposals are available in the report we produced.
Finally, we agreed that it was important to develop a shared understanding between all students and staff of assessment aims and the process within the department and the School. In particular the terminology used when discussing or providing information about assessment needs to be consistent to avoid confusion, and diversity of approaches needs to be clearly explained. We also need strong, consistent and supportive messaging about the assessment process to build trust and confidence and avoid the current perceptions of unfairness.
Importantly, these findings were not specifically linked to studying Law and so focusing on these areas could have benefits more widely within the School. It is important that we place as much focus on assessment and feedback as we do on teaching and learning when designing and teaching courses, and that we draw on the wide body of research reflecting important developments in this area to inform our practice.
One of our next steps is to continue to work with students to co-create a set of resources that will help to enhance student assessment and feedback literacy at different stages in their studies and we look forward to sharing these later in the year.
With thanks to our student partners (Christian Adair, Shamona Koshy, Wisdom Olujomoye, Tarana Asadova, Nikhil Nair and Xiaofan (Alice) Hong) as well as the Humanities eLearning team, John Owen from the School of Health Sciences and other colleagues from SoSS and the Faculty of Humanities who supported us with this project.