Outstanding Contribution to Feedback

Dr Michael Waugh from the School or Arts and Cultures recently won Outstanding Contribution to Feedback at The Education Awards run by Newcastle University Students’ Union. Michael shares his approach below.

When I was contacted about producing a piece for the Learning and Teaching @ Newcastle University Blog, a result of my two recent TEAs for Outstanding Contribution to Feedback, I was quite apprehensive. Reading through previous posts and case studies on the topic, I found a lot of emphasis on strategy, curricular design, formalised processes – none of which I felt reflected my own practice. I wouldn’t say I do anything particularly innovative or have an especially unique approach to providing feedback, and I was surprised (not to mention incredibly honoured) to be awarded in such a category.

Instead, I have always operated in a more personable and individualised manner, a recurring theme in students’ nomination comments for my TEAs. I never feel like I’m doing anything out of the ordinary; I just try to take the time to get to know my students, even on big modules and programmes, making it easier to respond to the specific needs of each person I teach. Universities have a tendency to split the academic and pastoral aspects of student life too much, with students being allocated to personal tutors that they might never meet in a lecture or seminar room and learning from lecturers that refuse or neglect to discuss any issues that don’t pertain to their module and its assessments.

Many of the anxieties and stresses that come with being a student obviously relate to difficulties with completing work to a standard that one can be proud of, and I aim to ensure that a rapport exists with those that I teach but are not my personal tutees by transforming the lecture theatre or seminar room into a welcoming and interactive environment. Students understand they can come forward with concerns and queries or confidently arrange one-to-one feedback sessions, rather than impersonally sending an essay plan via email or fearfully electing not to request any feedback whatsoever. I learn their names as quickly as possible. I sit down with their groups in seminars and join in with their scholarly conversations. I post regular and informative updates on Canvas. I do my best to assist with urgent queries and requests as quickly as possible, knowing the stress that can come from extended waiting times. I check in with those that I know have been struggling in whatever capacity. This has been even more vital given the uncertain and dispiriting conditions of the last 18 months or so, of course, and I have adapted my feedback techniques to compensate, but it was nonetheless central to my teaching long before all was moved online.

This is all quite time-consuming, yes, and I am contacted for a lot of tutorials and receive a lot of emails seeking advice. No doubt I have attained a reputation across MCH for being approachable and responsive. The results, however – improvement in both student experience and achievement – have been consistently worth it. It is truly heartening to see students that I’ve supported from the start of their degrees emerge with final grades that they hadn’t imagined achieving when working on their first ever assessments. Similarly, it is always exciting to see students with consistently high grades continue to build on their strong Stage 1 work, and I do my utmost to encourage them to push their ideas into ever-more original academic territories.

When it comes to offering feedback on assessments, I again can’t claim to do anything out of the ordinary. I would note that tailoring feedback to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student is very important, recognising that there are positives to be found in most pieces of work (even if the ‘quality’ of those positives is variable) and looking to highlight those where possible. This isn’t about ‘harsh’ or ‘lenient’ marking. It’s about pinpointing specific passages or elements of the submission that are worthy of praise or necessitate improvement and explaining (in detail) why that is the case, instead of broadly stating that ‘additional resources are needed’, ‘there could be more clarity of argument’, or similar.

Students have explicitly stressed to me that feedback they have received from others has been overly general and often predominantly critical. Friends doing the same modules show their feedback to one another and notice when their lecturers are just copy/pasting generic comments. These comments become meaningless when received for assessment after assessment, and do little to help a student’s work improve or to make them feel valued as singular members of the larger degree community. Stage 1 students are particularly demoralised when their work is judged to be far below the standards expected of university assessments but are given neither praise for the positive aspects of their submissions nor information as to how they might improve on the negatives, while Stage 2 and Stage 3 students want to be told what they are doing well and what they can do better (especially when it comes to major projects such as dissertations), not constantly reminded of what they are doing poorly. There is a difference.

As I say, I don’t see any of these as ground-breaking things. I am honoured to have received awards for my contribution to feedback, certainly, and it is lovely to have been asked to post something here. However, I don’t have a measured, innovative, or carefully considered strategy for providing feedback; rather, I simply emphasise consistent, specific, and positive support for and communication with my students, regardless of their ability.

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