Providing feedback to students

Based on this week’s readings, I critiqued the way I give feedback to students.

I use the “sandwich” approach. I like to provide a brief summary of the overall quality of the assessment in a positive way. This is one sentence. I then say what could be improved in 2-3 dot points – the consistent problems evident in the assessment. The 2-3 points of what was done well. I usually end with a forward looking statement to end.

I try and use my comments to improve student’s abilities, not just to improve the assessment, so I am forward thinking on behalf of the student. I avoid over-correcting grammar and typos. I’ll point them out once and explain.

One major difference in the way I give feedback compared to that proposed in OLTC20003 is that I use third person, referring to the assessment rather than the student. This is how I was introduced to feedback, and I have (until now) made quite a distinct effort to write in this way.

As an example, in the most recent assessment from students (an online post), students were consistently posting the reference list in an incorrect style. Some were attempting to use the correct style (we use Harvard) but others did not use any or the style was wildly incorrect. I responded to all students about their referencing, I added an additional post explaining the referencing requirements, and showed them an example. I also posted a link to the Harvard referencing manual in the library. I posted my comments in (what I believe) is a positive way, however I did use third person. A typical comment was something like “When referencing online news articles using the Harvard style, the author’s surname goes first followed by their first initial.” For some posts I added that they could refer to my posted example or the Harvard guide for detailed information.

I provide my feedack as quickly as possible. Even though the university allows two weeks to complete marking, I start marking as early as I can and can often return the assessments to students within a week. This is very hard work for me, but the student feedback I have received in relation to this indicates they really appreciate the quick turn around.

I was fortunate that when I started as an academic, I had excellent guidance from a colleague, including in relation to giving feedback. I modelled my feedback on the way she provided feedback, as well as the feedback I had received as a student (that I felt was constructive). I was also fortunate (?) enough to have a student complain about my feedback. Ironically, she believed I had given her too much feedback and that my postive comments were not constructive. (I guess you can’t please everyone!) The complaint was made to the Dean, and passed to the Head of Program to investigate. This experience taught me about the nature of feedback, and I have followed the above techniques ever since without incident. This includes the use of third person, which I will now reassess given the content and readings of OLTC20003.

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New insights for university teaching

Most of what I recognise as university teaching uses a systems approach to learning. Students are required to achieve outcomes. They do this by moving through modules sequentialy, building prerequisite skills as they progress. Achievement of outcomes is measured using assessment. My courses are set up in this way. This course (OLTC20003) is similarly structured. We learn one concept, then build on it and move onto the next advanced concept. This is an objectivist approach to learning. The role of “teacher” is dominant since the teacher sets the learning outcomes, the module content, and the assessment. The students is reuqired to (mostly) passively absorb the information, ala Information Processing theory. Although there are elements of constructivist learning theories in specific teaching strategies (for example encouragin students to apply knowledge and question with justification – I will explore this in a moment) the structure of an (undergraduate) university experience (in my field) is objectivist. The learning processes change in post graduate where independent thought is required. The only course where a constructivist approach is evident in my Program is the Communication Project. Learning outcomes are set (as required by the university) and sugestions are made by the lecturer as to how these learning outcomes can be achieved, byt the specific learning is dictated by the student. The student sets their own assessment (justified to the learning outcomes in a “proposal” submitted in Week 3).

Specifically, in my course Media Writing, I use a cognitive-behavioural learning theory (within the systems approach framework imposed by the university) which teaches students basic skills and progresses these skills each week, until the end of the course when the whol of the parts are joined together. This is a typical cognitive-behavious approach, which espouses “bottom-up” learning hierarchies (Roblyer and Doering, 2012, p.39). My assessment has set requirements and performance objectives that must be achieved. This is measured using a marking rubric that sets out different levels of learning. This approach is theoretically sound, since the students do not have enough prior learning to be self-guided.

That is not to say that constructivist approaches are not evident. The Professional Communication Program demontrates elements of Dewey’s social activism theory. The individual course are integrated, and influence and affect the other courses to make a degree that provides well-rounded learning. The content learned in one course is built uon in subsequent courses, sometimes concurrently. Students are made work-ready with practical experience.

Another example of constructivist elements is the use of discussions where a “what if” question is raised. Students can respond with their own experience and views. This has been a very useful activity when discussing ethics, where the expectations of behaviour are grey and are heavily influenced by the personal belief of the individuals.

Advanced courses emphasise group work as part of learning. This is used to reflect real-world situations where work colleagues are seldom chosen, but are imposed on the employee. The end result is generally a recognition that more can be achieved as a group than as an individual. Another example is the submission of a student portfolio as part of the assessment. This is individually completed and marked individually, albeit within the objectivist structure dictated by assessment criteria!

I have a small personal example of social cognitive theory, particularly vicarious modeling behaviour. This term I am teaching two courses. Both have similar assessment – a series of forum posts on Moodle. In one course students posted their posts to the forum as you would expect. In the other course, the first student to post added her post as a Word attachment. So did the second student and the third. A couple of students posted “normally” but soon all the posts were coming in as attachments. The students had vicariously learned that posts could be added by an attachment and had subsequently modeled their behaviour to conform to this expectation.

There are a variety of criticisms of objectivist approaches and constructivist approachs to learning theory. I will discuss the criticisms that apply to my courses. This also serves as a justification of why a combined approach is the most efficient. There are four main criticisms of the objectivist approach. The first is that students can’t apply skills later and that skills are isolated. I believe we address this by integrating the learning between courses, students can build on skills in introductory courses to advanced courses. Further, good learning outcomes will explain why such a skills-approach is necessary and is reflected in a real-world environment. Secondly, it is said that learning using an objectivist approach is repetitive and predictable, students get bored and drop out. I believe this can be addressed using som constructivist techniques that engage students at an individual level, and allow students to put their own spin on their learning. Thirdly, not all topics len themselves to direct approaches. I agree with this. The Communication Project is out capstone course and takes a constructivist approach. Within courses, there is opportunity to apply constructivist theories. Finally, students do not work cooperatively in an objectivist approach. I agree with this. Where this is relevant, students in my courses are encouraged to work in groups. For example tutorial exercises are often group based.

There are four broad criticisms of the constructivist approach to learning theory as apply to my courses. The first relates to teacher accountability. This required accountability prevents individualised teacher certifications. This is perhaps the biggest drawback to adopting a constructivist approach in a university setting. The sheer volume of content, student numbers and individualised learning prohibits such an approach. It is simply logistically impossible in the current university system. Secondly, the constructivist approach is too time-consuming to be practical. University terms have a set time frame. To a certain extent we allow self-directed learning by having the full courses Moodle ready at the start of term so students can progress at thier own pace, however this is still within a structured framework. Thirdly, not all topics lend themselves to conructivist approaches. This is particularly true where student learning has not yet reached a point where it can be self-guided. This tends to be the case in introductory courses. Finally, despite learning being anchored in authentic problems, students may not transfer skills to real-life situtions. I do not believe this is isolated to the constructivist approach. The applicability of specific knowledge will necessarily be individal. How that student applies the knowledge will depend on them. We can prepare them to a certain point, but the higher level application must be individualised. It’s like saying that one ingredient in a recipe is not available therefore you can’t make the cake. It depends on teh ingredient, the recipe and the cook. The cake might still be possible jsut not in exactly the same form as the cookbook.

In summary, the university system dictates an objectivist approach to teaching, and as lecturers we must abide by university policy and structure our courses accordingly. Within this framework, however we are afforded some generous freedom in how we present our information. It is here, in this teaching space, that we can employ contrructivist approaches and reach the ideal balance for the benefit of our students.

Walking the walk

All of this needs to be prefaced by the recognition that students have different motivations and different learning styles, and that all of this needs to link with the course learning outcomes!

In my field (professional communication) the world moves quickly. (I guess this is the same everywhere and for everyone.) Once upon a time we used to call people from my field “journalists” and there is still a meaning associated with this term. However the reality is that “journalists” have a much broader remit than ever before. The world has changed so much that terminology has not kept up. We now struggle with “citizen journalism”, an idea that anyone with a smart phone can report the news. “Journalists” overlap with other “media professionals” (what’s that?) and a plethora of other careers include journalistic elements. 

I, as a lecturer, am no longer teaching students how to be a journalist, I am teaching them journailstic skills. Even here at  CQUniversity we struggle with the terminology and have settled on “professional communication” as the most appropriate description of what we do. We are also a very practical program – our intent is making the students work-ready within professional communication.

To be an online educator, we have read, involves us wearing a lot of hats. We research, design, facilitate, assess, administer and advise. I would add to this that, for my field, we also need to “practice what we preach”. Keeping your hand in. Being current. Understanding the issues of the media workplace. This, to me at least, is more than being a researcher. I can look from the outside at the changes within journalism, but if I live and experience those changes can’t I then help the students with their understanding even more? It gives me an opportunity to engage with the students – reagardless of all the teaching tricks I might use to keep them interested!

When I studied journalism as an undergraduate, I can remember two different lecturers. One had been part of the university furniture longer than anyone can remember. The other was a former journalist in her first year in academia. I learned so much more from her than I did from the old Professor. He was very knowledgable, and I mean him absolutely no disrespect, but his lectures were necessarily theoretical. And whilst I accept that this is part of learning, I was a lot less work-ready because of him than had all of my lecturers been like the former journalist. That’s not to say he was a bad teacher – he was funny and friendly and knew his stuff, he just wasn’t interesting. I didn’t want to be like him. The former journalist was actually a bit pushy and aggressive but she was able to explain how she used that gumption in journalism and her examples were fascinating. 

Perhaps another term could be “public relations practitioner” or “reputation management”. After all, if we don’t believe the product, how can we expect the students to? This links logically with the “practice what we preach” element. The benefit of walking the walk is that students can see what they are doing actually working for real. And that gains respect for our product. And isn’t that a good thing?

Distance students

I can remember as an undergraduate student, I was internal. I had the opportunity to go to lectures and tutorials. The university I attended aslo had Distance based students. Back in the days before computers, Distance students were provided a hard copy study guide and Books of Readings. Even as an internal student, I like to buy these books to supplement my learning. I suppose the idea was that internal students didn’t need a book of readings because we had access to the library, but it was so much easier to have access to it! I submitted my assignments in hardcopy through a chute on campus. I had the opportunity of face-to-face contact with tutors, and yet I remember that most of my learning was by using the study guides for Distance students. It was either the study guides or trying frantically to short-hand notes during lectures. The internal learning style promoted by the university did not suit me at all!

Jump ahead 10 or so years to my post graduate studies and I found myself a Distance student. There were computers now, but no course websites or anything like that. My Study guide and Books of Readings arrived in the mail, and that was it. No further contact. I completed my assignments and mailed them in hard copy and then waited for them to be returned. I suppose I could have rung a lecturer, but I always thought they were very busy and far too important, so I never did. I completed a Grad Dip and a Masters in this way.

Now there is no difference between the material provided to Distance or Internal students. Some Distance students ask to be provided all of the information that internal students receive, but in fact it is actually the reverse. I provide the internal students with the activities and tasks and readings that have been allocated to the Distance students! The only advantge that Internal students receive is face-to-face contact – which as we have learned (and I have personally experienced) may not be the preferred method of learning. I think Distance students are provided with a variety of methods of learning (well, my students are!) There are written notes, exercises, group chats, collaborate sessions and camtasia. Phew!

Being available

I have about 150 students this term. I reported last week that I had personally contacted all of them in Week 1. My rationale was that the students would appreciate the personal contact and this would make future contact easier, if any was required at all. I have noticed that a couple of students are taking advantage of this contact and are emailing daily, one has rung me two or three times. As a lecturer I see this contact as part of my job and I don’t mind. I figure that these students may well have been needy regardless of my previous contact. But it has got me thinking. How available should I be? I have clear contact hours and I guess it is my responsibility to reiterate these. One student, in particular, intimated that he was not impressed that I took several hours to return his call. I explained that I was in class and could not answer the phone. He told me that he worked full time and he couldn’t talk to me when I rang. We agreed on a mutual time to call and so we managed to work it out. His question related to Moodle access and now that a day had passed he felt he was a day disadvantaged. The access, or lack of it, was because he didn’t click the link from his MyCQU page to the course page. A simple error for someone not tech savvy.  I guess we will all have challenging students from time to time – but do I continue to play his game? He has now emailed me three times since the phone contact this morning. I have no contact hours for students on a Thursday because I like to keep one day a week free for research. I replied to one of his emails, acknowledging the others. Am I setting a precedent here by returning his email immediately even though it is not my contact hours? I have already had to refuse to read drafts of his assignments for him.

The thing is, I don’t mind being available to students. I forward my desk phone to my mobile when I am away from the office because I truly don’t mind if people contact me. If I am unavailable the phone goes to message bank and I return the call. Is this being too available? I’m only thinking about it because I sense this student will become high maintenence throughout the term. And there are a couple of others, though not as bad.

I guess I’ll wait and see if things settle down.