Provide ‘Feedforward’ with Exemplars

There is growing interest in the pedagogical literature in something called feedforward. It is, as the name implies, the opposite of feedback, which provides input after the fact. Feedforward offers input focused on the future. It lets students know what they should be doing or could be doing differently next time. If it’s a similar assignment, the “do differently” is specific advice on changes that will improve the next assignment. If it’s a different assignment, the “do differently” identifies what’s not the same about the next assignment and what needs to be done in a different way.

In the article referenced here, the interest was exams and the fact, especially for finals, that students get little or no feedback, not through any fault of the professor but simply because the course is over. So the exploration in the article is of a feedforward method that involves providing students with exemplars of essay question answers.

Current interest in rubrics means that more often now students are receiving grading criteria before the fact rather than after it. Many teachers have discovered that rubrics clarify students’ understanding of what “counts” in an assignment and what they need to be doing if they want to earn high grades. This is all good but sometimes still not enough.

These authors write about the “tacit nature of quality” and how it is “harder to show in words than show on paper.” (p.640) Others (referenced in the article) who have written about exemplars point out how valuable it is for students to see examples at different quality levels and to practice making judgments about them. Students benefit when they start creating and verbalizing the rationales they have used to judge one answer better than another. If they do this in discussions with other students and the teacher, they can develop a sense of quality that parallels the teacher’s but is still something they have constructed.

In this study, the researchers selected exemplars of average, good, and excellent essay answers from previous student exams. The exemplars were anonymous but still used with the students’ permission. The essay questions and answers were typed up (the actual answers were hand-written during the final) with the teacher’s feedback appearing via the comment function in Word. They were available to students via a WebCT module. Of the 520 students in the cohort, 397, or 76 percent, accessed the exemplars, and the average final exam score of those who accessed them was 54.8 compared with 48.7 for those who did not access these samples. Qualitative data collected via interviews with a select number of students and faculty confirmed that students found the exemplars useful in a variety of ways. Some students said the exemplars were helpful in their thinking on how they would frame answers. Others reported that the exemplars made it easier to understand how the professor graded essay answers. Faculty reported that it was better for students to see examples than to hear the teacher talk about expectations and grading standards.

The challenge in sharing exemplars with students is their motivation to try to copy the sample answer—to structure it in the same way, to borrow phrases, and to otherwise mirror its tone and style. That problem is solved by making sure the answers shared with students do not apply to the exam questions they will be answering. It is preferable not just to make exemplars available to students but to actually use them in class or online. If students see and discuss exemplars and are given a sample question without an answer, then the discussion can focus not just on the content of the answer, but on how it might be structured and how the arguments could be constructed. This makes it easier for students to see that the value of exemplars is not in copying them but in being able to see what makes an answer good or not so good.

Feedforward is an interesting concept that gets us out of the rut of only focusing on what we communicate to students about their work after the fact. Feedforward is not about telling students the right answer. It’s about developing those skills that students can use to demonstrate the knowledge and understanding they have acquired.

Reference: Scoles, J., Huxham, M., and McArthur, J. (2013). No longer exempt from good practice: using exemplars to close the feedback gap for exams. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 38 (6), 631-645.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.4 (2014): 3,5. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.