Student Voice, Teaching Stories

Blue Booklet Blues

Getting my summer exam results was a fairly mundane affair. I was standing on a pigeon poo splattered balcony on the roof of the Berkeley Square building, waving my phone around to try to get some signal. Eventually, I succeeded, and found the eleven numbers that averaged out to one number that summarised my year at Bristol. And as it turned out, I’d done way better than I could have ever imagined when I started the year. I had to recheck the numbers a couple of times, to be sure I was reading right (which was difficult as the page took about 3 minutes to load each time).

Fast-forward a few months, and there’s now an opportunity to get my scripts back and have a look at what my lecturers thought of my answers and why I got the marks I did. In some ways I was quite excited – I’d spent countless hours working on the top floor of Senate house producing towers of notes, which had paid off, and I was proud of myself. It would be great to find out why my lecturers had liked my ideas, and what I’d need to work on this year to do even better.

So, I leafed eagerly through the ten blue booklets that together represented just over half of my degree so far. But, after handing back my work, which I will probably never see again, I felt pretty deflated.

That’s not to say all of the feedback was bad by any stretch. Putting a squiggle across my entire first paragraph and just writing “no” next to it was a bit harsh from one on my lecturers, but reading it back, I can’t say I entirely blame them. On one of my papers, I got more written feedback than cumulatively in all nine of the others, and that was fantastic. But overall, I didn’t take much from it, other than dampening a lot of the pride I’d had in my results back in August.

The numbers are great, but surely the reason for doing assessment is to find out what the academics thought of it: which concepts had I understood; was I thinking critically; had I done appropriate extra reading. In short: am I a good scientist? And honestly, I couldn’t tell you. Most of the comments on my work shed no more light than I could have by looking up my grade on the generic mark scheme. I think ‘damning with faint praise’ probably sums it up quite well. It was just an acknowledgement that I could write a vaguely coherent essay, and had at least not misunderstood the lecture content. If I were to give feedback on my feedback, I’d probably just give them the ever so vague ‘small tick with no explanation’, which litter my exam scripts.

I’m not asking for a pat on the back, or a big shiny sticker saying ‘Good Job’ (although stickers would at least be unambiguous). But surely if I’d been awarded grades that I really felt I could be proud of, I should walk out of a feedback session also feeling proud, with concrete ideas of how to do even better next time? Not, instead, feeling undeserving of the marks I was given and unsure why I was awarded them and how to get them again.

To be clear, I don’t blame my lecturers for a second. I could barely read back through my own work without getting bored, so I can’t imagine what that’s like 100+ times over. And if I’m honest, I’m not sure what I would have written in their place. But if the markers aren’t to blame, then what is?

Maybe it’s time to move away from the time-pressured, knowledge recall-based exam. Yes, they are a very efficient way to process a huge volume of students at once, but Spam is a very efficient way to process a huge volume of pig at once and I can’t imagine too many of you had it in your sandwiches today.

Many corners of the university are already shaking up their assessment, and that’s fantastic. Even within the same units I was examined on in summer I had great coursework tasks that I got useful feedback from. 

Really good assessment might include:

  • Collaboration between students
  • Formative work feeding into summative, allowing students to respond to feedback
  • Peer marking & discussion
  • Authentic tasks that prepare students for life after Bristol
  • Choice in the nature of a task, or how to tackle it
  • A chance for students to reflect on what they have done and how they have done it
  • Students able to feel pride at what they have produced, not just because of the grade it gets

It’s entirely possible that I got the best feedback my lecturers were able to give me in summer. It’s just that there just isn’t much to say about an hour long exam that tested my memory and hand cramp endurance before anything else.  

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow.

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