Undergraduates “fighting for feedback”

The University of Pennsylvania‘s student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, recently included a student-written piece on the lack of feedback in higher education. The article is called “Fighting for Feedback,” and it is a show stopper.

If we want to talk about accountability and outcomes assessment, what greater measure is there than students receiving feedback from their professors? David Kanter’s article begins,

The first time I got a paper back from a professor here at Penn, I was a little confused.

Other than a few perfunctory, illegible comments found scribbled in the margins, insightful, constructive criticism was nowhere in sight. I thought (incorrectly, I suppose) that I would receive extensive feedback on each assignment. I soon learned that unmarked papers and vague comments were the norm.

This is a message we’ve heard over and over again. It isn’t a Penn thing. It isn’t an Ivy League thing, or a private school thing. It’s just the old paradigm of pushing information at students rather than helping them discover knowledge for themselves. Some of us are more talented pushers than others, and can make that mode of education work through charisma and talent. But the majority of experiences we’ve all had in our educational careers are closer to what David describes than a true dialogue over issues and ideas.

I see the surprise in my students’ eyes when I hand them back their first feedback on a major assignment – a half-page or so of neatly typed and categorized comments, often with an annotated document attached. The surprise is created not by my straightforward feedback, but by the 12 years of hit and miss comments they’ve received previously.

If institutions are worried about being accountable to stakeholders – like parents, alumni, state and federal governments – isn’t David’s description an indictment of the service a student receives in exchange for $45,000 per year?

We are proud to be working with our client institutions to help move assessment and feedback into a new era. It doesn’t have to happen through software. Intelligently designed rubrics coupled with authentic assignments that don’t feel like make-work to students can make a world of difference, even if they only happen once a year or once a term. Dr. Greenhalgh’s army of TAs at the Wharton School are making a difference and doing what no single professor could do. Other schools have writing fellows, Writing Intensive Tutors, formal programs to educate faculty about writing across the curriculum, and a serious approach to data-gathering.

It’s a party that’s getting bigger, and if students stand up and “fight for feedback” universities will pay attention and put resources behind these initiatives.

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