Feedback conversations: How should I use technology? A nuanced approach …

One of the most frequent conversations I have is around improving feedback, and how technology can help. Increasingly I am trying to encourage a more nuanced discussion about feedback, because deciding on what feedback to give and how to give it is not simply about a choice between one tool or another; the choice should be the result of the individual lecturer’s preference, the context, the type of assessment or activity upon which feedback is being offered, the characteristics of the student or cohort, the aims of the feedback, the tools and technology required, the quality management requirements and no doubt many other factors. Some of the common questions I get are shared below with comments:

Should I use GradeMark for feedback? 

Well, it depends a good deal on what you want to achieve. GradeMark has many benefits but in itself it will not make feedback better. To be clear, like any technology it can make a difference but it is not a silver bullet; without meaningful engagement and a commitment to change practice, it will not improve satisfaction with feedback.

GradeMark can help you to achieve consistency in the comments that you offer to students because you can create a bank of common points to annotate the work, and it can enable you to add a greater amount of feed forward signposting advice to students for their common errors, for example if a group are struggling to paraphrase, you could create a comment advising of techniques and pointing to resources that might help and use this many times. GradeMark can help with a sense of fairness too, as marks can be allocated using a rubric. This is entirely optional, and there are of course other ways to employ a rubric. It can help with legibility, as comments are typed; but so too can very clear handwriting and other technologies. It can allow you to save time at certain points in the marking and feedback process, as you can get started on your marking as soon as students hand in rather than delaying until you receive a complete set of papers. It can aid transparency when team marking; you can see how another tutor is marking and feeding back – again this is possible to achieve in other ways, but being able to see each other’s marking in real time can create ongoing dialogue about the way marks are allocated and the way comments are added. If you are really concerned about reading on a screen, this might be a problem; but if you consume news, media, research and other things via a screen, it may be worth laying aside your concerns and giving this a try. All of these benefits though can only be realised if the user is working with the technology and is not simply transferring existing practices in to a digital environment.

Will it save me time? 

Yes and no. It’s not that simple. It depends how you use the facilities and what type of feedback you give. You can use as many or as few of the tools within GradeMark as you see fit. You can use the facilities within GradeMark in any combination: Voice over comments, annotations (stock comments or personalised as if marking on paper), you can use a rubric, auto generated scoring from the rubric (or not) and you can use a final summary comment. Each individual needs to look at their set up and then consider what they want to achieve, they should then select the aspects of the tool that work for their situation. Annotations may be better for corrective, structural feedback, or feedback on specific aspects of calculations, but the narrative may be the place to provide feedback on key ideas within the work. If you go in to using GradeMark solely to achieve efficiencies, you will most likely be disappointed upon first usage because there is a set up investment and it takes a large group or multiple iterations to get payback on that initial time spent. In my experience those who use GradeMark may start out seeking efficiency, but end up with a focus on enhancing their feedback within the time constraints available to them. When time is saved by a user, I have seen colleagues simply re-spend this time on making enhancements, particularly to personalise the feedback further.
Ok, so what equipment do I need to be able to use GradeMark? Is it best to use a tablet?

Again it much depends on your work flows and preferences. A desktop computer is my preference as I like lots of screen room and I like to settle in to one spot with unlimited supplies of tea, whenever I mark. Others like to be mobile and the tablet version of GradeMark allows you to effectively download all scripts, mark and feedback and then upload. So unlike the desktop version you don’t need to be connected to the Internet – for those marking on the go, this is a good thing.

I see other people using other technologies for marking, like Dragon Dictate and annotation apps on tablets, are these better than GradeMark? 

There is a large toolkit available for assessment and feedback and each has strengths and weaknesses, and each fits differently with personal preferences and context. So Dragon dictate can be used to speak a narrative or extensive comments, it’s not perfect but may help those who struggle with typing; annotation apps allow the conversion of handwriting to text, and they allow comments to be added at the point of need within a script (though GradeMark allows this too). On the downside a manual intervention is needed to to return the feedback to students. Track change can be good for corrective feedback, but it can cause students to look at their work and feel that it wasn’t good enough as it has the electronic equivalent of red pen all over it!
Second markers or external examiners refuse to use the same interface… Then what …?

I’d suggest that you encourage others in the process to use the technology that you have selected. Give them early warning and offer to support the process. A pre-emptive way of dealing with this is to ensure a course wide approach to feedback, so agreeing, as a group, the tools that you will use. This should then be discussed with the external and others at appointment. It’s harder to resist a coordinated approach. Policy change is what is really needed for this, so lobbying might help!!!

But students like handwritten feedback, they find computer based feedback impersonal …

Maybe so, but all students prefer legible feedback and feedback that they can collect without coming back on to campus. Also is it not part of our responsibility as educators to ensure students can work digitally, even with their feedback? Students who tell us that they like handwritten feedback often feel a personal connection between them and the marker, but feedback using technology can be highly personalised. It is simply up to the assessor to use the tools available to achieve levels of personalisation; the tools themselves offer choices to the feedback craftsman. Adding a narrative comment, an audio comment or customising stock comments can all give a personal touch. However if the feedback giver chooses none of these things, then of course the feedback will be depersonalised.

Students say they don’t like electronic feedback…

Some might and the reasons are complex. If we introduce a new feedback method at the end of a students programme, without explanation, irritation is inevitable as we have just added a complication at a critical point. Equally if feedback across a students journey is predominantly paper based, it is no wonder they struggle to remember how to retrieve their digital feedback and so get frustrated. If the feedback is too late to be useful, that will also cause students to prefer old methods. It may be useful to coordinate feedback approaches with others on your course area so the student gets a consistent approach, rather than encountering the occasional exotic technology with no clear rationale. Finally, though, students also need to be trained to do more than receive their feedback. They might file it, return to it, précis it and identify salient points. Good delivery of feedback will never alone be enough. Timeliness and engagement are also key to allowing students to work gain the benefits of their feedback.

Seeing things differently ….

One of the benefits of using technology in feedback is not often spoken about, or written of. When we engage meaningfully with technology in feedback it can change our approach to providing feedback, irrespective of the technology. By (real) example, someone trying annotation software may have a realisation that legibility is a real issue for them and they must prioritise this in future; someone using a rubric may start giving priority to assessment criteria as the need for equity and consistency becomes more sharply placed in focus; someone using stock comments and adding a voice over becomes aware of the need for the personal touch in feedback; and finally, someone using audio becomes aware that the volume of feedback produced may be overwhelming for students to digest and so revise their approach. These realisations live on beyond any particular technology use; so when we think of using technology for feedback, it may be useful to be conscious of the changes that can be brought about to the feedback mindset, and judge success in these terms rather than just mastery of, or persistence with one or another tool.

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