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Learning outcomes and assessment criteria

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Feedback within an outcomes-based framework

Although informal, verbal feedback is an on-going part of any teaching and learning situation, most educators become aware of feedback when they are assessing students' work. Assessment feedback is usually written, rather than verbal and is therefore accessible to a wider audience (including colleagues and inspectors/evaluators). In addition, many institutions have formal mechanisms for monitoring feedback. Knowing that the words you write about a student's work may themselves be assessed by someone else can be quite daunting but it does serve to focus the mind very clearly when composing assessment feedback.

There are two main purposes of assessment:

  1. evaluation of student learning against some pre-set, possibly external standard often at or near the end of a course of study (summative assessment)
  2. discovery of student strengths and weaknesses during the course of study, with a view to guiding and enhancing learning (formative assessment).

Assessment can only serve the latter function if feedback is provided as well as (or instead of) a grade or mark. Most higher education courses contain both elements and single assessment exercises may fulfill both functions.

Formalized systems and approaches may come into effect and there may be a requirement to give written feedback in a particular form or based on pre-determined criteria. The wording and structure of the assessment brief should specify if this is the case and ideally, a stated proportion of the marks awarded will be allocated for following this format.

Accentuate the positive

In order to act as a positive motivator for change, feedback needs to be constructive, comprehensible, honest and useable. Language used in feedback needs to focus on the desired and specified outcomes of the work, and not on the personality or attributes of the recipient.

Useable, constructive feedback should always suggest areas and means for improvement, rather than leave the student with nowhere to go. This applies to those at the top of the achievement spectrum as much as to those at the bottom. It is important to realize that simple exclamations such as: "Excellent! Outstanding!" are as unhelpful to self-development and improvement as: "Irrelevant! Nonsense!". Students at the top of the ability scale can often feel short-changed by cursory feedback that fails to offer them any sort of progression route.

Conversely, those at the bottom end of the scale can easily become disheartened and demotivated if they receive a relentless litany of negative comment and criticism for their work. It is generally recommended that even critical feedback is prefaced by a positive remark and criticism should be phrased in a neutral, unthreatening and depersonalized way. It should explain clearly what was expected of this answer and how the piece of work being assessed could be improved better to meet those expectations.

The "feedback sandwich"

One simple technique for writing feedback is to wrap negative comments up in a "feedback sandwich" with positive, encouraging remarks before and after them. Without deceiving students into believing that their work was better than it actually was, this technique ensures that the assessment is delivered sensitively and with due respect for the effort that has gone into it.

Where formative assessment in the form of detailed written feedback is accompanied (is it generally is) by a grade or mark awarded, it is vital that the feedback remarks match the grade.

As well as relating explicitly to the learning and assessment criteria for the piece of work in question, feedback will often have other specific functions with particular students, at different times in their studies. Sometimes the role of feedback may be more supportive; offering encouragement and spurring the student to greater efforts or increased self-belief and confidence. At other times it may be aimed at refining the student's critical abilities or offering detailed correction of an argument or data.

A final word of caution on the subject of feedback in assessment: it can be never-ending! Limit remarks to the key points of relevance, where the student can gain most benefit and learning. Develop means of streamlining the feedback process to make it a more efficient use of your time as well as a more effective learning tool for your students.