Among my various duties here, I am responsible for overseeing undergraduate dissertations. This means I run group sessions during the year, organise and collate marks from colleagues supervising individual students. It’s something that I’ve done for many years and it’s a generally rewarding experience, seeing how far our students can take their own research agendas.
However, there has been one aspect of this that has particularly struck me this year, namely feedback.
For reasons that I will not dwell upon, I released marks to students before I could return to them the feedback forms produced by the markers. Normally, we would do this at the same time, to try and maximise the engagement with the feedback, but it wasn’t possible this time.
In my email telling students were posted, I explained about the double-blind marking process. I’ll assume most of you will know this, but if not, it’s simply giving a first (the supervisor) and second (another colleague) markers copies to mark at the same time, which they do without any sight of the other’s marking: differences are then reconciled at a meeting afterwards, to produce an agreed mark.
Despite explaining this, all of the responses that I received from students to the mark release asked how their mark had been arrived at. A consequence of double-blind marking is that there is no anchoring of marks (as when one moderates), hence there is more mobility of marks (up or down) from any interim feedback process (of which we have much with dissertations).
In all those cases, I replied, explaining the system again, followed shortly by the feedback forms from both markers. Even when I did this, I had another query from a student about the differences between markers and the potential impact that might have with any external moderation.
All of this suggests a number of things.
Firstly, double-blind marking (and probably all kinds of marking protocol) need to be explained repeatedly throughout modules and programmes of study, so that students might more reasonably understand the logistics and effects of the approach. This might sound mundane, but I’ve had enough conversations with academics about the difference between marking and moderation to know that mundane things are not the same as simple things.
Secondly, it has highlighted the importance of contextualising marks with feedback. In this particular case, many of our students are thinking of graduate study, so their performance in the dissertation is particularly important, so good quality, constructive feedback is essential. My concern in this case is that the mark will be what is remembered. Indeed, it is noticeable that I had more comments back about marks than about the feedback this time, and I would venture to say that this is a general pattern.
Thirdly, the process has once again pointed one of the difficulties of giving useful feedback to final year students in their final semester. In previous years, much of the feedback I and my colleagues produce for these students at this time of year (for dissertations or coursework) never gets back to students, because they have already left and have little motivation to collect feedback on work that’s now behind them. We have tried sending out feedback, but with moderate impact. Perhaps we need to think again about how we can close the loop of studying, so that our students get the full benefit of their time with us.