“It is not about the mark, but the feedback experience you get”

Formative assessment

There are often varied interpretations and understandings, held by students and academics, on what is feedback, how feedback is defined (ie difference between formative and summative) and how this can inform learning.  From the student perspective, most complaints focus on the technicalities of feedback, including content, organization of assessment activities, timing, and lack of clarity about requirements (Higgins, Hartley, & Skelton, 2001), and from the lecturer perspective, the issues revolve around students not making use of or acting on feedback.  Rather disappointingly, these extrinsic aspects of assessment and feedback practice continue to dominate the National Student Survey (NSS).  Such perceptions and experiences of the assessment and feedback process can sometimes mean that students are unaware or unappreciative of formative assessment experiences as opportunities for learning, instead fixating on the assessment process: the turnaround of marks, the costs of involved to produce work for assessment and the perceived lack of fairness with grades and feedback. These experiences often mask the potential of formative assessment to shift learners away from extrinsic motivation towards intrinsic motivation and autonomous learning.

Formative assessment and feedback has been an integrated and established part of the curriculum practice in art and design for over 50 years and is seen as a positive and critical element in the student’s learning process (Blair, 2006).  Formative and ipsative (ongoing) feedback is central to the studio learning experience in art and design, potentially giving students rich dialogic experiences, in which to become active participants in their own learning. This ‘learning journey’ might be characterised by student presentations, portfolio reviews, peer assessment and critiques (crits). Based on a socio-constructive paradigm, feedback is often facilitative in that it involves provision of comments and suggestions to enable students to make their own revisions and, through dialogue, helps students to gain new understandings without dictating what those understandings will be.

Whilst there is an appreciation of the benefits of these rich learning experiences, students may misunderstand the role and purpose of formative feedback, and feel unable to navigate perceived conflicting advice from different tutors.  For example:

 “Our tutor will say great, love it and then two weeks later in another formative review, another tutors says scrap it…I am really confused now and don’t know how to develop my work…” (UCA student, March 2013  ‘What’s behind the NSS’ research)

This subjectivity is echoed in Bernadette Blair’s (2006) seminal work on formative assessment in art and design and Susan Orr’s work on connoiseurship and tacit practice :

‘Formative assessment in art and design cannot be prescriptive..Teachers and students give opinions based on experience and tacit knowledge, but as there is no one definitive or right solution, these opinions are in the main subjective..’ (Blair, 2007, p.86)

This confusion about the role of formative feedback may result in a fixation on the summative assessment graded work, rather than the formative learning experiences that feed into this.  Indeed, students can sometimes dismiss the rich learning experiences gleaned in crits, tutorials and presentations, not always perceiving them as arenas of proper “feedback”.   To counteract this, some courses at UCA, have been challenging student mindsets by injecting formative reviews with a ‘feed forward’ philosophy. Thus, rather than just viewing tutorials as where the tutor feeds back on your work, students are encouraged to review themselves, review each others’ work and to engage in a dialogue on how to improve their work moving forward.   Here at UCA, many students describe the great opportunities now provided by their courses for different feedback experiences, ie self-assessment  and peer assessment (3rd years critiquing 2nd year work).  By providing opportunities for students to engage in effective peer assessment, for example, this becomes a powerful mechanism to support their transition to becoming independent learners.  In turn, this enables a positive and student-centred (rather than tutor-led) culture around assessment and feedback, where students can critically reflect on both their own progress and that of their peers.  Enhancement practices, have therefore been all been about shifting student mindsets to take more of an active role in their formative learning experiences.  The effects of this are twofold: firstly, we shift from a culture of  ‘assessment of  learning’ where students passively accept knowledge, to a culture of ‘assessment for learning’ where students are actively constructing knowledge and developing critical judgement; secondly, we improve the employability of our graduates by making the tacit explicit and creating work-related assessment opportunites to encourage learners to capture and reflect on that process of learning.

Blair, B. (2006) ‘At the end of a huge crit in the summer, it was “crap” – I had worked really hard but all she said was “fine” and I was gutted.’ Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education 5(2): 83-95.

Bloxham, S., P. Boyd, et al. (2011) ‘Mark my words: the role of assessment criteria in UK higher education grading practices’. Studies in Higher Education iFirst Article.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P & A. Skelton (2001) ‘Getting the Message Across: The problem of communicating assessment feedback’, Teaching in Higher Education, 6:2, 269-274, DOI: 10.1080/13562510120045230

Nicol, D.J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice’. Studies in Higher Education 31(2)

Orr, S. (2010) ‘Collaborating or fighting for the marks? Students’ experiences of group work assessment in the creative arts.’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 35(3): 301-313.

Orr, S. (2010). ‘We kind of try to merge our own experience with the objectivity of the criteria’: the role of connoisseurship and tacit practice in undergraduate fine art assessment. Art, Design and Communication in Higher Education 9(1): 5-19.

Sabri, D. (2010) The NSS at UAL: Voice, interpretation and context, UAL



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1 Response to “It is not about the mark, but the feedback experience you get”

  1. Pingback: Transition in: Level 4 strategies to keep students ‘on board’ | UCA Creative Education Network

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