Dispute about formative assessment

Dispute about formative assessment

By Guttorm Sindre, June 21

Gabrielle Hansen, a researcher at Excited, defended her doctoral thesis titled "Use of Feedback in a Higher Education Learning Context" on June 3, 2022. The dissertation focuses on formative assessment in higher education, specifically how frequent feedback during the semester can be used to provide the best possible learning experience. We interviewed Gabrielle about her research, particularly about innovation processes regarding formative assessment and the use of feedback in higher education.

Gabrielle Hansen, a researcher at Excited,
defended her doctoral thesis on June 3, 2022.

-    What would you say are the most significant innovations concerning formative assessment and feedback in higher education in the 21st century?

-    There was a paradigm shift in the research literature around 2010. Before this, feedback was typically understood as something given to the student—comments on submitted performances, which answers were right or wrong. The new understanding was more learning-oriented, with the student as an active part in creating feedback and using it for improvement, making the lecturer a facilitator and dialogue partner rather than a transmitter of the "correct" answers.

-    To what extent has this paradigm shift from research been adopted in teaching practices?

-    It varies, but in higher education, most of the teaching and assessment practices are still characterized by the student being a relatively passive recipient of feedback. It's important to note that it's not only lecturers lagging behind but the entire sector. Take, for example, NOKUT's Student Barometer: Of the three questions included in the index on feedback and guidance, two of them formulate that feedback is something provided by academic staff, and students receive it. Similar surveys in other countries may exhibit a similar pattern.

-    Why do teaching practices lag behind the research front here?

-   It could be a combination of culture, traditions, opinions, and attitudes towards learning. Many feel there are few incentives to change teaching practices, or they lack knowledge about what is effective in creating good learning. In other cases, lecturers might be familiar with the research literature on good feedback but struggle to see how to translate this into practice in their courses. There are relatively few success stories to look up to here. It's not just about the individual teacher but the support system and the surrounding culture. When I was involved in action research related to better feedback in mathematics courses, I was referred to as "a helping hand" by the lecturers participating in the change processes. It can be intimidating to change one's role as a teacher, and it's important to have someone to rely on and discuss with.

-    Do you have any good advice on tools to help lecturers overcome typical obstacles in such change processes?

-  My tips are more directed towards the organization surrounding them than individual lecturers. It's important to broaden the perspective and consider whether the organization facilitates change. Enthusiastic individuals can achieve a lot in certain courses, but they don't create widespread change. Lower education has seen more widespread changes because they work more collectively. They have a better understanding that teachers are also learners. A lecturer who needs to change their teaching role requires colleagues' support, both administratively and from research expertise that offers evidence so you're not working blindly. Ideally, setting up a "teacher-learner community"—a platform for reflection, feedback, and sharing experiences between those involved in similar change processes. And having enough time is crucial! A commonly used method to achieve change is to free people from regular teaching for a short period when they plan a change. However, in many cases, this approach fails. To achieve lasting change, you need to be in the change process long enough. Just as students need more competence in reflecting on their learning, teachers also need to learn to use reflection as a tool for change, both individually and in teams—and ideally with the help of an external expert who can provide pedagogical research insights. Eventually, the subject group becomes self-driven in the change process, and the external change agent can gradually step back.

One of the processes that technical and natural science studies at NTNU will soon go through is the gradual implementation of recommendations from the FTS project (Future Technology Studies). This will also involve IT study programs.

-    Many of FTS's recommendations are based on insights from foreign educational institutions that are ahead in educational quality, such as key players in the CDIO network. What do you think we at NTNU can do to improve our IT studies if we don't just want to copy "best practices" from elsewhere but also contribute to innovative "next practices"?

-   My big idea in this context is that we must dare to go all-in, invest significantly in active feedback usage, distribute teachers into change teams, with sufficient support to ensure many succeed and lecturers feel a sense of mastery—and accompany it with follow-up research to evaluate over several years which changes are effective for better learning. An important source of inspiration, I believe, could be the REAP project led by David Nichol—which came up with what are now 7 well-known principles for good feedback. But even these are not set in stone—perhaps our contribution to the next practice could be revised principles for good feedback and education based on those principles.

-    Most of the work on your dissertation was done before you started as a researcher at Excited, and the focus was on feedback in mathematics, not IT. Can feedback setups be used across disciplines, or does it require a lot of adaptation based on the subject and context?

-   Some adaptation will always be beneficial: what type of reflection fits the subject and which tools are naturally used. But the principles for good feedback are built on general learning theory, and a conscious choice I made was that most of the measures attempted were relatively independent of the specific subject. I therefore believe that many of the experiences I have from my doctoral work can be directly transferable to similar change and innovation processes in Excited and IT subjects. 

The committee evaluating Gabrielle's thesis consisted of Arild Raaheim (UiB), John Gardner (Univ. Stirling, UK), and Marte Bratseth Johansen (NTNU).

-    How did you experience the actual defense? Relieved to be done?

-    Of course, I'm relieved, and beforehand, I was a bit stressed and nervous. But the defense itself was a very positive experience. The opponents were skilled and academically very strong, and as opponents, they naturally also posed critical questions related to the thesis. But mostly, I found that they facilitated a very constructive dialogue, which was as much about the way forward as the research already conducted. I left the defense with a lot of ideas for further research and hope they can be carried out in Excited—and in a way that can also be disseminated to other academic environments.

For those seeking more insights into Gabrielle's research, see, for example, the articles: