Tag Archives: teaching

Giving feedback

Feedback sheets

For the supervisor, feedback is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the whole supervision process. The intention of feedback is to enable the recipient to benefit from critically helpful comments and suggestions, but a balance is often difficult to find. To put it simply, the supervisor wants to provide the student with helpful advice to enable the student to improve their performance, but to stop short of actually doing the work for the student. Viewed in this context, any feedback should consist of three parts; a note of what the student has done well; the identification of what can be improved; and suggestions for making these improvements. It is not sufficient to say that, “Your citations are terrible” without explaining how they can be improved. Simply listing the faults can be demoralising and is not sufficiently helpful for learning. Personally, I am not a big fan of the trend to include a “Feed-forward” paragraph, because I belong to the tradition that good feedback always includes within the commentary some instructions on how to make future work even better, so the need for a separate “feed-forward” section is redundant.

That is the broad context, but the level of detail that a student can expect to receive, and the timeliness of such feedback, can be very much case-by-case, and diverse according to different supervisors. When I receive the first pieces of writing from a student, as they complete drafts of individual chapters, I like to give a detailed root-and-branch response. Normally I do this by using track-changes, to insert every missing comma, correct spelling or clumsy grammar, and place annotations in the margin to query or compliment relevant sentences and diagrams. I appreciate that not every supervisor considers this to be part of their role, but I take the view that it is my job to set the benchmark of quality for the student in the presentation of their dissertation. To do this, I can only give them an idea of the standard of writing that I personally would be comfortable with if this was my own presentation. I do not tell the student what to write, but I encourage them by example to present this in the best and most appropriate manner. I work on the (possibly naïve) idea that every student wants to exert themselves to the highest standards possible, and therefore when I make suggestions on how to improve the work, these suggestions are made with the best intention to benefit the student. I leave the decision on whether or not to accept my changes and comments to the wisdom of the student. If s/he feels that their original version is better, that is their decision, but if the External Examiner demands the same changes that I have suggested, I know that it is not because the student has not been given that advice by me, merely that they have not chosen to heed it.

Timing is another variable issue. At my current university we are required that “normally” (a wonderful word) we are expected to return feedback to students within ten working days of the submission deadline, and I think this is fair. The purpose, after all, of feedback is to help the student to improve their future work, and this is best done while the submitted work is relatively fresh in their memory, and before the student starts make similar mistakes in the next piece of work to be submitted for assessment. In practice, with research students, ongoing feedback can be given in a variety of ways – written or verbal – using a diversity of media, including text, telephone support, chats in the corridor, and formal sessions either face-to-face or using video-chat. It is wise to explore very early in the supervision process what works best for the individual student and the individual supervisor.

Padlocking an idea

Padlocking an idea

Two very different quotations came to mind during the last week in conversations with colleagues. The first is when the Highlander Folk High School was being (temporarily) closed down by segregationists – when asked why he was laughing as the law-officers padlocked the gates, Myles Horton replied it was because “you can’t padlock an idea!” The second quote relates to the Buddhist concept that to really get the best out of something, we have to ‘let go’ of it, and share it with others. I am referring, of course, to the idea of Open Educational Resources. Some people just don’t seem to get it. There is an idea that if it is free, and on the web, then it can’t be of any use. Naturally, there are a lot of poor quality resources on the web – but there is also a huge amount of very poor books in print, and that doesn’t mean to say that all books are terrible, or that we should not learn to be able to distinguish the good from the bad. Many years ago, an Australian colleague, who was far in advance of his time in making web-based educational resources a ‘public good’ told me the reason that his university was backing his open-access initiative. “Prospective students see what we put up free on the web and think, if that’s what they are showing us for free, what else do they have? I want to go there!” Other institutions, such as the Open University UK, have talked about the value of attracting learners to using their OER, who then may go on to enroll with the OU. It becomes a sort of ‘kite-mark’ of quality. The crucial word is “quality”. If we produce quality resources and share these openly, it will only enhance our reputation as a university of choice. On the other hand, no matter how good our learning resources may be, if they are hidden away in the darkest recesses of academia behind lock and key, they will only benefit a minimum number of students, and our reputation will take longer to become established. Give me transparency and openness over close rooms and closed minds any time!

Social learning

Social learning

I was sent an interesting link from a colleague recently https://apps.uow.edu.au/ which is a store of apps created at the University of Wollongong, Australia. It seems a very good idea to me. When discussing it with colleagues I came upon an interesting disagreement (or “contested issue” as academics like to call it!). Most people I spoke to were very much in favour of being able to use social software with their students – especially students of education and/or technology. Perhaps not for direct teaching, but for support, social back-up, and certainly for teaching about the subject itself. It is accepted that it is not good practice to demand that students submit assessments through third-party software providers, but surely the best way of teaching about social networking in education is to allowed controlled use of social software in courses? There should be a system to allow students to sign up at the start of the course that they realise the conditions of use of Facebook, Twitter, and so on. It could even be accepted that students who hadstrong objections could opt out of using these tools (but that would be a bit like opting out of reading the core texts!) Surely, however, by the simple fact that a student is studying the subject (and may already be using these technologies in their personal life) it would seem reasonable that the way to learn best practice , and to guard against unwitting bad practice, is to study the media systematically. I think that objections to this are just another example of education lagging behind the technology practices of society as a whole (and it is interesting that the staff with the most vigorous objections to the use of social media are not tutors, but some ‘support’ staff). It would be interesting to learn about what other universities are doing in this area.

UC Dublin

UC Dublin

Just back from a couple of days at University College Dublin where I was an external on an interview panel for a new member of senior academic staff. Two things struck me as I compared UCD with the UHI. Firstly, that UHI is currently so far ahead of UCD in e-learning terms, both conceptually and in practice, although they are doing some interesting things and are keen to embrace new practices. Secondly, how well co-ordinated they seem to be across the university, in comparison with the UHI. We have sites of duplication that don’t even speak to each other; several academic partners that claim to be the ‘lead centre for X’ although there is no attempt to link up similar work across the UHI and attain a critical mass. Surely the time has come when we can set aside inter-college rivalries and establish something bigger and better than the sum of the parts? There are some great examples of collaboration and innovation at the UHI and some real blind spots…. Let’s hope that 2014 sees us getting to grips with some of the latter!