October 25th, 2017

Helping Students Recognize Quality Work, Fix What Isn’t Good

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Student reviews assignment.

How good are your students at assessing the quality of their work? Do they understand and act on the feedback you provide? I’ll wager that some students do. But the rest—they don’t know if what they’re turning in is good, not so good, or what they were supposed to do. If you ask how an assignment turned out, most students are fearfully noncommittal. The verbally confident proclaim that it’s excellent and hope you’ll remember that when you grade it. And this inability to ascertain quality and shortcomings applies to papers, essay answers, proposed solutions to open-ended messy problems, creative performances (artistic, musical, for example), and engineering and architectural projects.

Royce Sadler writes about students’ inabilities to self-assess. I highlighted some of his work on feedback in earlier posts (January 27, 2012 and March 26, 2013). His chapter (cited below) further explores the issues.

Teaching Professor Blog To be sure, it is difficult to judge your own work accurately. Even seasoned professionals can be terribly vested in their work. Why, some of my very best blog posts have failed to make even a ripple. But with students, their inability to make judgments and corrections isn’t just their lack of objectivity. They’ve come to rely on faculty feedback. Most teacher feedback tells students if their work is good and, if it’s not, what they need to do to make it better. And as Sadler notes, “Research into human learning shows there is only so much a person typically learns from being told.” (p. 55) And this is particularly true when the goal is learning how to complete the complex tasks that are part and parcel of most professions.

Sadler maintains that we need to change our focus “from the narrow issue of how feedback can be improved and communicated. . .towards the wider issue of how assessment (rather than feedback) can enhance student learning.” (p. 56) He sees assessment as a process that can promote learning about the content at the same time it develops two important self-assessment skills—the ability to judge the quality of the work and the ability to know how to make it better. The way assessment occurs now neither of those skills are explicitly developed. Faculty analyze student work in the ways students need to be looking at it before and after they create it. “Learners need to develop awareness and responsiveness so they can detect anomalies and problems for themselves.” (p. 57)

We’re reluctant to let students touch the assessment area because the need for good grades overwhelms objectivity, but Sadler isn’t proposing that students grade their work. He’s advocating that we help students develop the skills they need to assess their work before it’s graded—the very skills that make good grades a more likely outcome.

“Learners must develop know-to [as in know-what-to-do] knowledge directly through experience if they are eventually to become self-monitoring.” (p. 58). In the chapter he describes an approach he’s used to develop the skills. Students write a 300-word paper in which they “distil, process, apply and integrate material from different sources (course lectures, notes, websites, textbook and discussion) rather than reproduce, adapt or compile existing content.” (p. 59). In class their papers are re-distributed so that each student has a paper but not their own. Students first make a judgment as to the overall quality of the paper. They do so without having been given any criteria. Sadler believes that learning to develop criteria is an integral part of the process. Then, in 50 words they justify their appraisal—sticking to “qualities and properties” of the work avoiding praise or censure. (p. 60) Finally, they provide the author written advice. Interestingly, Sadler participates in this activity right along with his students. He writes a paper, puts it in the pool for a student to select, and assesses a student’s paper.

Do students always provide quality feedback? They do not. It’s a learning process. For students to develop a concept of quality, they must see a range of quality and learn to identify quality feedback. Sadler makes this observation: “Much more than we give credit for, students can recognize, or learn to recognize, both big picture quality and individual features that contribute to or detract from it. They can decompose judgments and provide (generally) sound reasons for them. This is the foundation platform for learning from an assessment event, not the assumption that students learn best from being told.” (p. 62)

Reference: Sadler, D. R. (2013). Opening up feedback: Teaching learners to see. In Merry, S., Price, M., Carless, D. and Taras, M. (Eds.). Reconceptualizing Feedback in Higher Education: Developing Dialogue with Students. London: Routledge.