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2022 Assessment In Higher Education Conference: key messages and take-aways

Having persevered and worked around the rail strikes, I managed to attend the Wednesday of the Assessment in Higher Education Conference in Manchester. I had previously attended the conference in 2019 (back when the world was a very different place) but found that many of the themes that were discussed at that event were still active points of discussions within the community. Here are my key takeaways from the event.

Desegregating Feedback From Assessment

The work of David Carless and Naomi Winstone has long attempted to open up a conversation around feedback and feedback practices in Higher Education. In her keynote address, Professor Winstone delivered an overture of her recent publications.

Professor Winstone drew from a range of visual metaphors to support her key provocations, the first coming in the example of wooden trays filled with paper feedback that is ready for students to collect. Professor Winstone called it ‘the feedback graveyard’, noting that while there may be potential in the comments, is feedback really feedback until its potential is unleashed and it is used by its recipient?

It is problematic for us to treat feedback as a commodity, with workload models, turnaround times and the idea that it can be outsourced to GTAs. We treat it as something that can be managed in logistical terms. What message does this send?

Professor Naomi Winstone

Another visual metaphor was to depict a mannequin being dragged down by heavy rocks. Feedback, she argued, has baggage. This could broadly be categorised as:

  • A transactional precedent around feedback. Commonly in Higher Education discourse, feedback being seen as something that is received in exchange for a product, such as a piece of summative assessment.
  • A narrow view of ‘what feedback is’. Professor Winstone shared an image of a T-Shirt emblazoned with the slogan: ‘this conversation we are having is feedback!‘ She mused on the importance of signposting to help students appreciate the broader scope of feedback as a dialogue, or, indeed as ‘talk’ (Winstone et al, 2021). ‘It is up to individual disciplines to think about what feedback means‘. This idea was also discussed by Kay Sambell in an earlier presentation, where she argued that informal learning, such as feedback for active learning or community-focussed feedback, is still not coming across in University dialogue as ‘feedback’.
  • How do we conceive and measure success? For instance, the focus in metrics such as the NSS has discussed the provision of feedback alongside notions of timeliness. Feedback is often seen as something that is an industrialised process, with a discourse around efficiency, rather than a tangible impact on student learning or agency. Should students instead be asked to rate how they have been able to apply & engage with feedback activities?

The take-home is that feedback does not need to be drawn into the processes of assessment, which are subject to various accountabilities and quality assurances. For instance, feedback that is delivered in exchange of a summative assessment may be a form of ‘grade justification’, intended more for external examiners, than for the benefit of the recipients.

There are many good reasons for assessing work anonymously, but I can’t think of many reasons for feedback being given anonymously


Student Choice In Assessment

Another consistent theme for a conversation around assessment in higher education was the idea of providing students with additional choice around how they are assessed and the artefacts that they produce to demonstrate their development of skills.

One particularly extreme-case study of practice was provided by Rick Fothergill and Lowri Dowthwaite from the University of Central Lancashire, where a first year assessment for the module ‘The Human Being In Context‘ which aims to train future mental health professionals by providing ‘the opportunity for self-reflection and self-care‘ while encouraging students to explore ‘their own wellbeing as part of who they are‘.

Students are introduced to the researched links between creativity and wellbeing and encouraged to try out activities that they can reflect on. This then culminates in a creative, authentic assessment in any artistic format including painting, drawing, music, sculptures, poems, songs and or artefacts

FOthergill, R & Dowthwaite, L (2022). Sourced from the Presentation Abstract

I was really interested to hear how the presenters had made this work – both from an educational design and from an operationalisation point of view. I was really impressed by some of the examples of the student’s work – ranging from a self-painted deck of playing cards to an elaborately produced quilt.

This represented, I felt, a laudable attempt to push the envelope and make something like this work – but it did represent a useful reminder of the sorts of challenges that emerge with providing students with so much flexibility.

For instance:

  • How do you help students to self-regulate, and not invest too much time in creating something very complex and open-ended that strays from the learning outcomes?
  • How do you communicate the marking criteria to the students? Do the students know that it is their wrap-around reflection, not the artefact itself, that will collect most of the marks?
  • How do you manage expectations, and fill the gap between a student’s perception of effort (and investment of time) and the marker(s) view of the creative artefact?
  • How do you ensure fairness, when students have differing levels of access to social capital, skills and even creative materials?

I got a sense that some of these issues were still being ironed out – and that not all of the students were particularly ready to embrace the opportunity with open arms in the first instance!

Associated Literature

Winstone, N. E., & Carless, D. (2019). Designing effective feedback processes in higher education: A learning-focused approach. London: Routledge.

Winstone, N. E., & Boud, D. (2019). Exploring cultures of feedback practice: The adoption of learning-focused feedback practices in the UK and Australia. Higher Education Research and Development, 38(2), 411-425.

Winstone, N. E., Balloo, K., & Carless, D. (2022) Discipline-specific feedback literacies: A framework for curriculum design. Higher Education, 83, 57-77.

Winstone, N. E. (2022) Characterising feedback cultures in higher education: An analysis of strategy documents from 134 UK universities. Higher Education, in press.