Feedback, assessment and skills development

Walker, Mirabelle (2008). Feedback, assessment and skills development. In: Rust, Chris ed. Improving Student Learning – For What? Oxford, UK: The Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, pp. 228–240.



Black and Wiliam (1998) have indicated that feedback on assessment needs to bridge the gap between the student’s actual level of achievement and the desired level. Although the comments made on students’ written assignments are generally referred to as ‘feedback’, there has been relatively little investigation into whether they do in fact help to bridge the gap. Similarly, little work has been done on whether gap-bridging comments elicit a different student response from comments that leave the student to bridge the gap.

In the first phase of the research described in this paper, the gap-bridging potential of various types of comment was investigated. A coding tool introduced by Brown and Glover (2006) was used to carry out an analysis of over 3000 written comments made on 106 assignments in three course modules in a Technology faculty. One dimension of this code was used to determine the categories of comments being made: relating to the content of the answer; relating to skills development; providing motivation; etc. The other dimension was used to determine whether the comments were gap-bridging.

The second phase of the research looked at student response to comments. Individual interviews were carried out with 43 of the students whose commented assignment had been examined. These students were asked to indicate, if possible, particular examples of comments on their assignment that they had been able to use in later assignments in the module. They were also asked how they had responded to some of the individual comments on their assignment. In the latter case, a thematic analysis of these responses was carried out, followed by a matching of types of response to categories of comment and to whether the comment was gap-bridging.

The outcomes of this work show that relatively few of the written comments were gap-bridging. There is, however, a clear relationship between whether the comments are gap-bridging and whether the students understand the comments. There are also notable differences in how useful students find the various categories of comment for future work; skills development comments are particularly useful.

Two significant questions arise from these findings. One is whether assignments should focus more on skills development and less on content. The other is whether tutors’ practice on commenting needs to shift more towards a constructivist perspective, as suggested by Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2004). On this latter point, the effects will be described of development work currently being carried out on tutors’ commenting skills.

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