Thinking about Assessment and Feedback | On Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas'

There's a lot for an early-career teacher to engage with in Graham Gibbs' '53 Powerful Ideas All Teachers Should Know About' series. Here, I reflect on how these ideas have manifested in my classroom in the past, or how they could benefit my teaching in the future. 


At 12 noon today, the deadline for the 'Greats: From Plato to the Enlightenment' midterm passed. As the relief sets in for the students, the fear and loathing begins for the tutors: here comes 30 essays to mark in the next few weeks - a task that looms mountainous, even without the constraints of not working on strike days. This seemed to me to be the perfect time to read Gibbs' ideas about assessment and feedback.

The first part of his article that stuck out to me was the discussion of what has the most impact on students: feedback or marks?

Experimental studies have provided students with one of three feedback conditions: marks only, marks and feedback, or feedback only. It is the feedback-only condition that produces more learning and more improvement in student marks. Students demand marks, but what do they know? Taking marks off assignments is the cheapest way to improve the impact of feedback. If necessary you can provide marks two weeks later once the feedback has been digested. Students’ extrinsic motivation and mark orientation can make even the most lovingly and professionally crafted feedback metamorphose into an explanation of why they got the mark they did. This does not necessarily help them to learn the subject matter.
— Gibbs, 2015

Students are more open to reading their feedback and taking it on board when it is divorced from the marks. This seems quite common-sense to me. I remember being reticent to read through essay feedback as an undergraduate if the mark wasn't the greatest. It took until quite late in my undergraduate career to build the emotional resilience to be able to thoroughly read and consider the feedback on my essays. Taming the emotional response and taking constructive criticism on board is a skill that takes time to develop. Would I have developed this skill sooner if the mark was withheld, and my only indicator of performance was the feedback - forcing an engagement with it?

We use TurnItIn for essays, and my students receive both their marks and feedback on the platform. However, they can see the mark before they open the feedback studio. How many of them, I wonder, look at their mark and then close the window? How many of them open the full feedback studio and read through what I've written for them?

Reflecting on this issue, I wonder how far some of my practices help ameliorate the problem:

  • I consciously try to write future-oriented feedback - rather than feedback that 'justifies' the mark. This often involves taking a specific example of an area where the student could improve, and generalising it so that they can see how it could apply to future assignments.
  • In my second semester of teaching, I wrote a 'How To Survive Your [Classics / Philosophy] Essays' guide for my students. I had noticed that a lot of essays I marked needed the same advice and feedback, such as: check that your referencing and bibliography is complete and correct according to the referencing style; consult appropriate secondary sources, not Wikipedia - and here's how to find them; state your aims clearly and concisely in an introduction, and summarise your arguments in a conclusion. I put a lot of the common feedback into this survival guide, which I revise and hand out a few weeks before essay submission time. Providing common feedback before the assignment is due has worked well as a preventative strategy - the students seem to be receptive to the advice. 
  • As far as possible according to my contracts, I provide office hours for the students after their essay marks and feedback have been released. Previously, I held regular office hours, advertised at the end of each tutorial session, but never had any takers; now I hold essay-specific office hours, with slots to sign up for via Doodle Poll. This gives us the opportunity for an in-depth discussion of the feedback I wrote for them, and how the student could improve. Formalising the process by doing a Doodle poll sign up has increased the uptake of students coming for office hours, but am I doing enough to make these sessions accessible for the students? Am I approachable enough? Would a student who is reticent to open the full feedback studio online sign up for a one-on-one office hour feedback session?

Over the next few weeks, I'll be thinking about how to make my written feedback more effective, as well as how to increase student engagement with the feedback. I'll also read Gibbs' 'Part 2' on this issue.