The inversion of feedback in university

By Eugene Lim

Report books were fascinating at a younger age. Whether you were struggling or soaring, the numbers mattered as a symbol of pride and a validation of one’s infant identity. I took relish in gradually climbing up the overall school rankings from Pri 2 to Pri 6. Yet despite my love for numbers, my favourite part of opening my report book at year’s end lies elsewhere:

Form Teacher’s Remarks

Never mind that it was only a short paragraph, even a short sentence. Never mind that it was always about my being “diligent” but “quiet” and needing to speak up more in class. I looked forward to it because it was the most human thing inside. It seemed to affirm, in ink, that I – or anyone else – cannot be reduced to mere numbers.

In secondary school, I’d receive comments from all my subject teachers on a termly basis. Great! But it was electronic and – feeling weaker bonds with these teachers – rather less significant. What more, I’ve had enough of being told I was “quiet”. I know, I know, but can you all just be quiet already!

Yet now that I’m well into university, I realize I do miss feedback, even if the nature of my interest has changed. I no longer seek affirmation; I want constructive criticism. Not about me as a person, but about me as a student. I know, “quiet” is still my order of the day, and it’s something I ought to contend with from my own reserves. What I want is, in my mind, very achievable.

Teachers, would it be okay to give us more feedback on our essays?

Minimal Essay Feedback 

I’m an Arts student. Arts students would benefit greatly from academic feedback because there are no clear-cut solutions to refer to. There are tutors who give a lot of constructive criticism and give a B grade – I am most often convinced. And then there are teachers whose pens appear to be running out of ink, since they just put a “well done” and give an A grade – that’s nice, but why? If I can’t figure out what exactly I did to merit it, how will I know how to apply it in future modules?

Maybe I should just take the good grade and scram. But… wasn’t it about the learning?

There is certainly the option of arranging for consultations, but this strikes me as a mediating factor in an unfriendly system. I know teachers have a lot of papers to peruse, alongside their own academic work. Yet what’s so difficult about writing down the thoughts that must have gone through their minds before deciding on the grades? If it’s to avoid follow-up debates with students, by denying them the tools for contestation, then how can we call universities the sites of higher learning?

To be fair, most teachers do give adequate feedback. Sometimes teachers write nothing because they have nothing to pick on. But do 5-star film or book reviews not come with detailed explanations too? How should essays be any different?

Unreturned Exam Scripts 

Nonetheless, at least we get those essays back. At least we can scrutinize the positions of the ticks and squiggles, to infer the merits and shortcomings of our papers. What about exam scripts? What about the essays which frequently account for 50% of module grades?

In 5 semesters I have taken 14 modules in my major. Among them I’ve had 14 final exams, but only 2 mid-term tests. Each final exam, of course, includes 2-4 essay questions. Anyone can figure that timed essay assignments demand very different skills from term papers and presentations. If this is a systematic model of higher education, then it is certainly outmoded. Do we pay full tuition fees only to get half the feedback for learning?

I don’t know the reasoning behind not giving feedback for exams. Maybe it’s linked with anonymous marking, such that it’s at least very inefficient to trace the student numbers to the students. Maybe there are multiple markers with no uniform critique. Fair enough, but these for me pale greatly in comparison to the constraints on learning. If exams represent the primary mode of assessment, why is there no way for students to learn from their very attempts? The least that can be done is to give us aggregate feedback!

In contrast, teachers have access to an avalanche of feedback through online student feedback exercises. The irony is stark. Is the university a place for students to learn, or a place for teachers to learn (which some don’t do very well)? Even if individual teachers and students are willing to learn from each other, the exam practices in place make it more difficult than it should be. Times have changed. Traditions should, too.

If this sounds like a first-world problem, I’m sorry. But haven’t we moved from third world to first? As Michelle Chong says, “I honestly think Singapore would be a better place if people really just take pride in their work.”

I don’t need a report book anymore. But I’m giving one to the non-human institutions of higher education. They asked for it, didn’t they?

This article is edited from a post at https://smartcasualsg.wordpress.com/2015/12/01/the-inversion-of-feedback-in-university/