NSS 2014: Don’t judge me. Or do.

UWE, November 1995. I’ll never forget the moment. I was getting my first undergraduate essay back, all sweaty palmed and full of feverish expectation as I snatched the folder from the administrator to see how I’d been judged. Marked. Assessed. Ranked.

45 was the mark. And the comment? “Spend less time working in the bar and more time on your studies”. I still recall now the emotions of the moment- the disappointment in my own performance, slowly morphing into questions about the marking process and marker, developing into rage about the cheek of the comment. How was I to learn about my own performance- and improve it- with a comment like that?

So it’s with those memories that I find this year’s news about the National Student Survey so profoundly depressing. Sure, most of the indicators are at a record high, but there’s assessment and feedback- all stuck out, sore thumb, languishing around the 70% mark. How are we still in a situation where three out of ten students aren’t satisfied with the process their institution goes through to assess and feed back to them?

It’s even worse when you scratch a bit. The taught HEI score for “feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand” sits at 66%, which is extraordinary given what feedback is supposed to be for in the cycle of learning and improvement.

It’s depressing because if there’s anything that students are paying for, it’s to be assessed and fed back to. In an age of digital distribution and reproduction, a bored PhD student shuffling their way through someone else’s acetates no longer represents a problem- students can surf around to find better teaching- and electronic resources are just a google scholar search away. No, it’s the process of assessing the standard of a piece of work and then crafting feedback that justifies that score, giving a clear route to improvement, that is individual, powerful and important in the experience of HE.

Which is why the lack of real work to turn around the low score is so shocking. Stories still persist of HEIs that set a target for return times and either consistently miss it or, worse still, never even monitor it (only to blame students’ “high expectations” !) Too many academics are still setting work where the criteria for success is as opaque as the stained glass windows of the dreamy spired, Harry Potter HE institutions which inspire such unhelpful, rite-of-passage behaviour. And the only thing worse than the sausage of this process is if students found out what was in those sausages- hurried, rushed and bored marking, perfunctorily performed by overworked academics and their PhD wannabees, covered up and justified by an external examiner and double marking culture barely fit for 30 years ago, but utterly broken in the mass HE age.

So what is to be done? Almost five years ago my old employer published some pretty remarkable proposals- remarkable not for their radicalism but for their conservatism. Things like timely feedback. Face-to-face feedback for at least the first piece of assessment each academic year. A variety of assessment methods. Electronic submission of work. And anonymous marking for all summative assessment.

Ironically for the critics of the NSS who so hate the “consumerist” power it gives to students’ views, it’s the NSS’s worst score that is so important for nurturing the co-produced relationship that is the consumerist antithesis. Higgins, Hartley and Skelton’s “The Conscientious Consumer”, makes clear that students “seemed to read and value their tutors’ comments… not as simply instrumental ‘consumers’ of education, driven solely by the extrinsic motivation of the mark… they are motivated intrinsically and seek feedback which will help them to engage with their subject in a ‘deep’ way”

In other words, what the consumerist NSS is telling us is that the biggest area of concern for students is the one bit of HE that they don’t see from a consumer perspective. Funny how things turn out!

NUS’ 2010 Assessment and Feedback Charter can be found here

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