Case Studies

TESTA at Bristol: summary findings about Assessment and Feedback

The TESTA (Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment) project works with programmes at the University to explore how students experience various aspects of their assessment environment, such as the quality of feedback they receive, the split between formative and summative assessment, and how they know what standard is required of them. Since 2019, programmes from all faculties have participated in TESTA.

Below is a summary of what we know about our students so far. Read more about the TESTA project here.

Formative assessment

When the value of a formatively assessed task to completing summative assessments is clear, students find them helpful.

I would really focus on it if I can use this formative feedback on my project or exam. Whereas if it’s not linked to anything else for that unit, I can’t really see the point in putting too much energy into it.

Many students appreciate the potential value of formative feedback for improving their summative grades and would like more frequent formative hand-ins or checkpoints.

I’d really like to have more practice essays, like one a week just to keep going and then you can actually see yourself improving. If you only have two essays a term there’s no way to see how you’re improving … I feel like I learn better when I’m constantly improving, getting feedback.

However, when there are many competing deadlines students often find themselves prioritising summative assessments, because formatively assessed tasks do not count towards the final grade.

If you’re really stressed with loads of other work that’s summative you don’t want to be stressing about ungraded formative assessment – you just wouldn’t do it.

Integrated assessment design

Students openly admitted to taking an instrumental, pragmatic approach to studying when the assessment methods encouraged it.

For all the exams we did, it was like: “ok, you do this unit and here’s what’s going to be in the exam.” So you could just do those bits and – I don’t know about you guys, but I’m obviously not going to learn stuff that I’ve been told I don’t need to.

But they liked studying in a way that encouraged them to spread their effort and engage with all content on the unit.

I’ll usually just do exactly what my essay’s on and not bother doing the other readings and lectures for the other weeks. Whereas when you have something, like a weekly thing, even if it’s just short, it encourages you to do the work.

Some students found their department’s approach to blended learning had made it easier for them to spread their effort, prepare for and engage with the unit content.

Because it’s blended learning and it’s asynchronous, you learn all of that [content] before your lecture and then you have the live sessions, and they’re really for discussion. And I think that’s what’s really improved, it’s allowing people to speak and you’re not just being spoken to. You sort of engage with it more and speak to the lecturers, ask questions, have a debate.

Understanding assessment criteria

Students are motivated to get good grades but they can find it hard to interpret and fulfil the assessment criteria for tasks.

Sometimes it feels very vague … One specific example from this year [is] a final development analysis that says, ‘in order to get a good mark you have to show some interesting insight’. So I’m saying, “well, what qualifies as interesting insight?”

And despite their best efforts, the resulting grade is demotivating and confusing.

You put in lots of work [and you’re] really happy with the result. You’ve really thought things through and your grade comes back fairly average or pretty bad. And it’s like, “What’s happened here? Why, why?”

When a new assessment type is added, students want clear guidance on how to complete it successfully.

They gave us support sessions to help us to write a poster and how to do a presentation, which was really helpful.

They respond positively to assessment-related workshops which explicate the grading criteria and show them how these criteria could be applied to exemplars.

When I read the grading criteria, it just seems to say, “do this well, do that well.” It doesn’t give you that much of a guide to what the distinction would be between a first and a 2:1, but what I’ve found helpful is when tutors describe the grading criteria. They’ll be really explicit and say, “ok, what they mean here is ‘be as clear and succinct as possible’”, or, “do depth and not breadth here.”

Approaching staff for help

Students are often encouraged to contact tutors with requests for additional guidance, but often find it intimidating.  

 In first year you couldn’t have paid me to talk to a lecturer! I would have been terrified!

 And sometimes, asking for help can be a humiliating experience.

I emailed the unit tutor for guidance and there was just a complete lack of personal interest or care.

It was really rude!

Yeah – it was, right? It was so rude. It was really defeating.

Summative assessment

Many students find exams unsatisfactory, because they can be passed by regurgitating facts and do not require deep engagement with the learning.

The thing with exams is that you learn to pass the exam. I’ve done exams for seven years in a row – you learn to pass the exam. The second you walk out, you forget everything.

Students prefer assessment formats which allow them to dig deep and engage with the content.

I learn most from the seen exams … because it means I can really focus my revision and really explore one topic deeply.

When students find that their summative assessments are clustered within a few weeks, it is very stressful to complete them.

Once in the second year we had five group projects, plus one or two individual ones. All done in the exact same time.

I had to completely ignore everything that was exam related until after the hand-ins…

I nearly quit the course, I couldn’t handle it.

You just don’t have a life. You can’t go to lectures because you’re too busy.

And as a result, they’d play it safe and limit their ambition.

I’d much rather learn something new, but when I’ve got three essays in the same week, I just need to pick a topic that can get done easily … It’s sad but I’ve done two or three things on liminality now and I don’t want to do anything more on that, I want to do something new.

They take their grades seriously and want to excel. They find it stressful to prepare an essay for summative grading when there has been no opportunity to receive formative feedback.

In second year we had two essays which are both worth 20 credits each, which is a big part of your grade. And if you do the essay well, that’s great! But if you don’t do well… I think formative feedback for those [essays] would have been really helpful.

When students have many competing summative assessments which only count for a fraction of the grade, they find themselves prioritising them by credits awarded.

The more assessments [there are], I start going, “oh no, I need to do all of that”, but then I’m like, “oh no, that only counts for one and a half credits but I have this essay due and it counts for seven, I should be doing more of that.”


Feedback: quality, consistency and timeliness

Above all, students are looking for specific, actionable and timely feedback on their work which will help them improve the quality of future submissions.

[You want] feedback that tells you where’ you’re going wrong – in terms of structure, depth, what you should include, how you should include it – so that it gives you an insight into what your essay should look like, where it should be going.

There’s is a wide perception of inconsistency between markers, with some being seen to offer more helpful and detailed comments and others offering brief and vague comments.

Feedback is very, very varied … in a module last term I got comments like “good,” “bad,” just one-word criticisms. And on another unit I got quite a lot of detail, where and how to improve.

Where rubrics have been trialled, the students are positive about the impact this will have on standardising the quantity and nature of feedback comments received.

With the introduction of this new coversheet and this more in-depth feedback, it will hopefully improve things. They are trying to change that inconsistency … they are trying to encourage more lecturers to give more feedback.

Feedback: a dialogic and emotional process

While students value specific, actionable and detailed feedback on their work that helps them to improve, they sometimes end up with more questions when they read it. For this reason, all students appreciated the opportunity to discuss the comments with the marker. This gave them the chance to explain and justify their original choices, as well as clarify and act upon the points being made by the marker.

I thought, “oh, I got marked down for this, but I thought it was a valid point.” And then I went to a meeting [with the marking tutor] and they’re like, “oh, I misunderstood your point because of the phrasing. Try and keep this bit simple”.  So it was really helpful – I was trying to include too many ideas.

Students are highly invested in the work that they submit and sometimes the marker’s comments seem unnecessarily critical or hurtful. 

I felt that there was a real sense of bitterness in the feedback that I got, to the point where it wasn’t objectively telling me what I’d done wrong, it was insulting. They were insinuating that I didn’t deserve to be at university, that my work wasn’t university level work… It didn’t feel professional at all. It was quite shocking.

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