Classically Inclined

September 15, 2011

A better way of marking essays?

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 4:47 am
Tags: , , , ,

The assessed essay forms a big part of the formal assessment for students’ degrees at Birmingham, and students have the opportunity to write practice essays throughout the year. Now, I have a small confession to make – I think that I saw a reference to the article I’m going to talk about here in a Faculty Focus e-mail, but the piece I remember appears to have vanished into thin air, so I may have come across it somewhere else. In which case – sorry, whoever  I’ve forgotten! However, clearly the idea in the e-mail or blog post jumped out at me, because I downloaded it straight away, since it seemed that it might be a useful addition to the arsenal of resources for providing useful assessment feedback for this kind of work.

The article is titled Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets, and is authored by Susan Bloxham and Liz Campbell; I’ve put a full reference at the bottom of this post. Their starting point was that dialogue is starting to be recognised as a really important part of meaningful learning (that is, active engagement trumps passive receptivity). The dialogue they want to create, without overburdening staff, is between student and tutor about written work, with students asking questions about their own work when they submit each assignment. There were problems – students didn’t always know which questions would begin a “meaningful dialogue”, for instance – but nonetheless, the idea still seemed to have potential.

I fully agree with the authors’ assumption that students get better at a task the more they have the opportunity to perform the task – that is, students who have the opportunity to do practice essays will do better on the final assessed essay. That said, given how limited the opportunities for practicing those skills are, it seems wise to make the most of them. The question of making students feel they’re getting enough feedback is also important; it’s an area that often gets low marks in the National Student Survey. Bloxham and Campbell argue that part of the reason for this is that students don’t see the immense time-load that goes into preparation of feedback, and that they need to be involved in a dialogue rather than just getting comments back.

What Bloxham and Campbell came up with for their target group was something called an interactive cover sheet, or ICS. This looked more or less like a normal cover sheet, but included an area where students were invited “to identify particular aspects of their work on which they would like feedback”. When marking the assignment, tutors provided the requested feedback.

Part of the problem with this approach seemed to be that students weren’t sure what the standards for assessment were. Criteria for the assignment may be provided, but until you know what they mean (through practicising producing them, I suspect), it’s quite hard to know whether you are meeting them and students may actually find them meaningless. So one thing that comes to mind is asking students to base their requests for feedback specifically on the course criteria, at least in part – that might help to resolve this sense of confusion, even if only to ask ‘I don’t know what meeting this criterion would look like, am I doing it?’. That might also help the researchers’ sense that students tended to ask questions about technical ‘concrete’ aspects on their work rather than more abstract things.

Bloxham and Campbell wish to stress that their findings are based on a small sample size, only looking at first year students, and only over a single course. That said, the idea of giving students an opportunity to focus their own feedback (and thus engage in reflective activity about their own academic process) is one I’ve seen before, and that I’ve found an interesting idea. I suspect I won’t have the opportunity to change any of the established formal procedures that Birmingham has for providing grades to students, what with this being a one year position and all, but that’s no reason that I can’t introduce an informal element for my students when they write practice essays that invites them to suggest areas of their work that they would like feedback on. Part of the point of this initiative was to help instructors grade more quickly whilst still providing high-quality feedback – and as it’s a fairly simple, low-impact idea to introduce, I think it’s worth giving it a go.


Bloxham, Susan and Campbell, Liz (2010) Generating dialogue in assessment feedback: exploring the use of interactive cover sheets. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education , 35 (3). pp. 291-300.


  1. have you read Bain on teaching writing as a professor? It really helped me design my writing course and has tons of good ideas for various ways to improve essays and marking them.

    In practical terms, I’ve heard good things about iAnnotate in the iPad.

    Comment by LDG — September 15, 2011 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

    • No, I have not come across Bain! Have you got the reference handy? It sounds like it might well be worth a peruse, especially if it’s got lots of good concrete suggestions.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 19, 2011 @ 4:12 am | Reply

  2. Ah, in my head I conflated the author I was talking about (Bean) with the author of What the Best Professors Do (Bain). The book I meant is called Engaging Ideas and Bean is somewhat of a guru of writing instruction and writing-across-the-curriculum movements. I found the book wonderfully useful and thought provoking:

    Comment by LDG — September 21, 2011 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

    • That’s brilliant! Thanks for the recommendation; I shall try to get to it as soon as my routine settles down enough to get back into doing some Professional Development reading…

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 21, 2011 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

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