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.

 

Thoughts on Learning and Forgetting | 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. 


Gibbs opens this article with a story familiar, surely, to all of us; of sitting in a lecture theatre some years ago... and that being more or less all you remember about the course. He writes:

Most of what we are taught, much of what we learn, is lost, or at least not easily retrievable. It is possible that some of my economics course is buried in my brain somewhere and that a cunning set of prompts might enable me to retrieve a few fragments. But it is certainly not available to me as I read an article in the newspaper about some national economic issue and try to remember what Gross Domestic Product includes and what it does not.
— Gibbs, 2014

As a student who couldn't tell you much about some of the courses I took in my first year of undergraduate study, I can testify to the truth of this statement. But as an early career teacher, this statement is initially rather depressing. So much thought and energy goes into reading the set texts, developing lesson plans, and delivering those lessons - only to think that what the students recall about our lessons in ten, fifteen years time may be fragmentary at best. 

However, the important thing is to take this fact of the matter on board when it comes to designing learning and setting outcomes for the class. Rather than worry about the deterioration of a student's factual knowledge of Plato, can I help them develop the skills to read Platonic dialogues in the future? Can I show them the resources available to teach themselves and reinforce their understanding? The skills and strategies for reading, discussing, and understanding philosophy should endure beyond the factual recall of the texts themselves.

There is some respite from the question of "will my students forget everything we learn together?" in Gibbs' discussion relating this fact of forgetting to assessment styles. A study of Cognitive Psychology students at the Open University that showed that, many years later, many of the students had forgotten much of what they had learned on the course. Achievement in the exams did not correlate with what they could remember, however; it was achievement in the essays and coursework that predicted the long term recall of concepts. He writes:

The kind of learning students usually do for exams often has short-lasting consequences, while the kind of learning they do when they are trying to understand something well enough to write about it in assignments often has much longer lasting consequences. This is termed a ‘deep approach’ – an intention to make sense, to understand, to relate ideas together, and so on.
— Gibbs, 2014

Exams rely on memorisation of facts for recall in that one 2 or 3 hour window of furious writing that comes at the end of the course. Learning for exams is often shallow; a re-reading of notes, rote memorisation of dates, and stacks of flash-cards. This kind of knowledge is likely to slip away when not being actively cultivated in preparation for that one opportunity for recall.

Coursework and essays, on the other hand, ask students to critically engage with the material from the course. This leads to a deep approach to the material: students can return to different papers and primary sources they've read, follow the citations in them, explore the limits of their essay question. The process of relating ideas and concepts together in this way makes the students more likely to be able to remember the material further down the line.

The upside of this is that, in this aspect, tutorial teaching resembles more an essay than an exam. The aim of tutorial discussion is to practice evaluating and analysing the text, concept, or other material, much like they have to do in their formal assessments. It is the 'deep' approach to learning in practice, as I encourage the students to relate what they have learned to other concepts, whether those are from their lectures, their wider reading, or their own experience.

What this means is that, hopefully, if a student remembers anything of their course in a decade's time, then it is likely to be our tutorial discussions.

Thoughts on Anxiety in the Classroom | 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. 


This article was one of the first of Graham Gibbs' articles I read. It discusses the way that fear and anxiety can manifest in students and their studying behaviours. On the first page, the following line jumped out at me:

Some students adopt a confident or anxious approach to all aspects of their studying [...] They might choose obvious essay questions on subject matter that has been covered thoroughly in lectures or the text book, or where the ‘right answers’ seem fairly straightforward. [...] They prioritise coverage over depth. [...] All decisions are intended to reduce risk.
— Gibbs, 2014

In the course of marking student essays, I've noticed the phenomenon of the 'popular' essay. A large proportion of the class will answer this particular essay question. The question will engage with a topic that was covered in at least a week's worth of the lectures, or one of the tutorials. Whilst many students will engage with the question with the results of their own reading, displaying the development of original thought and a high level of engagement with the subject matter, many more of these essays will rely on the textbook or recommended reading, hitting the same surface-level points along the way with little critical engagement, resulting in middling marks.

In the past, I wondered whether this phenomenon was due to the essay being seen as 'easy' or 'straightforward' by the students, with little consideration for the motivations for choosing the essay topic beyond that criterion. However, reading Gibbs' article, I wonder whether the reason behind this is anxiety.

Are the other essay questions neglected because the topics weren't covered sufficiently well in the lectures or tutorials? If students are too anxious to admit to a lack of depth of understanding of the course material, they might therefore take the lower risk presented by the 'popular' essay, rather than face the prospect of asking for help. Anxiety can make asking for help seem like an insurmountable task, with an accompanying fear of shame at the possibility of seeming 'stupid'. If anxiety results in the students thinking that asking for help will be unpleasant, then this can be a huge barrier to learning. Approachability is important - letting students know that you are open to questions about the topic or the essay material at the end of the tutorial may empower them to ask for help. 

Are the straightforward essay questions picked because students do not feel prepared to tackle the more complex question? Do we do enough to help students understand what essay question-words like 'explore' and 'analyse' mean in context? Not understanding how to approach a certain essay question increases the risk of not answering it properly, or the risk of failure, which can cause anxiety. I signpost my students to writing resources; there are many excellent resources online, such as Purdue OWL, the UNC Writing Center, and the University of Southampton Writing Centre. Students in PPLS at Edinburgh can also take advantage of the PPLS Writing Centre. I'd love suggestions to add to the resources I recommend to students come essay-time.

Finally, I worry about the problem of anxiety and surface-level learning. In tutorials, I try to provide an environment where students can explore the topics, get involved with in-depth discussion, and practice original and independent thought. In this way, these tutorials are practice for the essays; students can try their ideas out on the class and benefit from hearing the thoughts of others. Am I doing enough to encourage students to go beyond surface-level fact finding and tackle the subject in depth? Am I creating a comfortable space for anxious students to critically engage with the subject material before essay time? A lot of the activities I set for my students are small-group discussions. This gives quiet or anxious students space to talk with a small number of their peers. Often, I find that this breaking of the silence empowers them to speak in front of the rest of the class later on. The risk of embarrassment from talking in front of the whole group is deflated, as they have tried out their ideas already. For some tasks, I have time to check on each group individually before asking the groups to feed back to the class as a whole. This enables me to give attention to small groups of 3 or 4 students at a time; this is when many of the 'quiet' ones may ask me a question or tell me something they found interesting about the reading. The risk of asking a question in front of everyone, of 'seeming stupid', collapses, and I can have a brief one-on-one conversation with the student. What other techniques could I be using in the classroom to reduce anxiety?

Anxiety can be a huge barrier to education. Further thought is needed on how to encourage students to critically engage with the course material as they go, with positive reinforcement along the way.