Is all that summative feedback worthwhile? Discuss.

Prof Graham Gibbs made the keynote address this year’s  University’s LTA conference on  July 5th.  His talk was videoed by our TEL’s video team and can be viewed further down in this post.

The  Learning Technology team and I would imagine most others at UoD found his talk challenging and stimulating. Although there was little per se about the focus of this blog, learning technologies,  the implications of his arguments are considerable and impact on what has been a major priority for us and many academics over the last year, the provision of electronic feedback to students, or as it is now frequently referred to, feedforward strategies.

The opening topic of Professor Gibbs address was about programmes and programme integrity. His general contention was that the predominant focus of universities is misplaced on small elements of the learning experience, i.e. modules, arguing that this focus neither matches the motivations of students nor allows the most effective support.

He gave the example of a university that was moving away totally from modularisation towards larger chunks in learning, breaking down programmes only by year of study.

The nature of modules militates against what was the other major theme of Professor Gibbs talk, the urgent need to alter the balance of summative and formative assessment dramatically in the direction of formative assessment.

Gibbs looked at a number of universities’ experiences. He looked at one university where “the teachers work like anything, they really care, I couldn’t fault the teachers… It meets all the expectations of QAA, learning outcomes, aligned assessments. Course documentation etc. is immaculate.. There were 15,000 words of feedback (over the course of an average student’s studies) but despite the huge volume of feedback… it doesn’t work!”

Why? Because students do not see the feedback as useful; it was returned too late; the module curriculum was not seen to have long term subject general relevance; the methods of assessment were unlikely to be repeated and so advice would not help them with other assignments; even simple words and phrases used in feedback, such as ‘conclusion’ or ‘summary’ were not really understood.

Professor Gibbs’ answer to this was to refocus on programme rather than module development.. “the people who have put all their quality enhancement effort into individual module, individual teachers … are not succeeding… the places that are moving up through the rankings, developing reputations, sometimes quite surprisingly are those that have strategic approaches to the development of programmes”.

The University of Derby is currently re-emphasising the importance of formative feedback. But what does Professor Gibbs say about what you need to do to make that work, other than avoiding focusing too much on module priorities?

  • Reduce the number of summative assessments during a programme, at Oxford they often only have eight.
  • Plan explicitly on the basis of giving feedforward to the students.
  • If you are giving appropriate formative feedback/ feedforward, is there a need for summative feedback at all?
  • If possible give oral feedback although Prof Gibbs takes this to be primarily a conversational feedback which allows the terminology used to be clarified. Again at Oxford  formative feedback is extensively given to students through the tutorial system.
  • Use peer assessment even of the ‘quick and dirty’ variety.  He makes a strong argument against marking having any role in formative assessment.

Of course, there was a lot more to Professor’s Gibbs talk than is summarised here and there are a number of similar talks of his at universities on Youtube that are well worth viewing.

But what does that have to do with us, the Learning Technology team or those interested in learning technologies?

  1. One of the problems with feedback to students is the difficulty in managing it. Unlike Oxford, our staff and students are under greater time pressures. We need to be able to develop, conduct and stagger formative assessments using time-efficient online tools. The tools are there. Some we are already using in summative feedback.
  2. Should we move away from feedback being seen as one-way and look instead at online conversational tools?
  3. Should we worry less about peer assessment being ‘clean’ and quality assured: instead looking at ‘quick and dirty’ peer assessment where marks are not the issue, where the quality is less important than the volume, the ease of its aggregation and the thinking that it promotes with students. Would this encourage the use of online peer assessment tools?
  4. Programme meetings, the first step in effective programme development that Prof Gibbs calls for, are always difficult to organise and get full attendances at. Can online collaborative tools be better used to support programme development?
  5. We have programme areas on Blackboard. Whilst we support Threshold Standards for modules, should we be trialling improving the use of those areas, recognising the greater identity that students have with their programmes and their subject rather than their modules?

Of course, we know that there is a lot of good work in many programmes across the university. How can we share that more effectively? Maybe this blog could be a place to start sharing them?


6 thoughts on “Is all that summative feedback worthwhile? Discuss.

  1. > Should we move away from feedback being seen as one-way and look instead at online conversational tools?

    Communication is at its most effective when it is two-way communication. So introducing any method of two-way communication may introduce new opportunities. (Of course, all innovation introduces challenges too, but these can be over come if the organisation listens to its own experts.)

    Just introducing an online conversational tool may not be enough. Students and staff need to be given a framework and guidelines to ensure that the benefits we seek are realised. The guidance should encourage, amongst others, certain standards of behaviour, referencing, collaboration, critique and setting of specific objectives for each subject discussion / forum.

    Two way communication of this nature can also add to the knowledge base of the programme, module, student and members of staff.

    High levels of (quality) participation by staff and students could deliver excellent benefits.

  2. > “… where the quality is less important than the volume …”

    We need to be careful not to exchange quality for volume.

    There is an adequate volume of information already on the Internet – the challenge is to find and promote the quality.

    • Agree, with your other comments, Adam but this comment of mine that you quote and criticise I would defend. I am here talking about peer feedback. I have often heard academics say that they are wary of student communications, e.g. discussion boards etc., because the students might tell each other ‘wrong things’. But as Prof Gibbs says, with examples, in another talk he has given linked to here ( it is the critical engagement with criticism that is important.

  3. Hi
    Having been teaching for a very long time in university and college, I can say with some certainty that I have spent 100’s of hours writing comments on summaitve peces of work which have never been read, in many cases not even collected.

    At best writing comments on summative work, especially after the end of module, does little more than justify the grade. It’s probably best not to call it ‘feedback’; even less is it ‘feedforward’ because if it’s specific to the content of the module then there’s nothing to feed it forward to.

    Real formative feedback is an ongoing dialogue (perhaps we can consider how such a dialogue is best facilitated) which doesn’t just ‘form’ the individual assignment, it helps to ‘form’ the student and to develop lifelong learners.

    In general, we probably teach too much and assess too much and students learn less this way.

    Pete Scales (LTA, Education and Social Science)

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