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Before you go “On your mark …”: Instructors and constructive feedback

Students working on their laptops

According to students, the most significant task an instructor has is to provide feedback. Recently, I, myself, had the occasion to go through that experience while correcting my students’ case briefs. As a student and now a Tutorial Leader (TL) (in the Integration Workshop for first-year law students at McGill), I am now in a better position to consider feedback from all angles.  

While instructors seem to agree with the importance of providing justified feedback, often, students do not—they are unable to understand the relevance of their feedback. Are marking grids straitjackets restricting instructors in doing so? Or should we look at some deeper individual considerations, like one’s attitude towards marking? 

What should feedback consist of?

Literature offers evidence of preference for advisory feedback, better known as constructive feedback, over evaluative feedback. The former perceives the assignment as a springboard to self-transcendence while the latter only sees it as an end in itself—an approach that isolates the assessment under review from the student’s broader academic journey. More than providing a mere snapshot of a student’s past performance, advisory feedback, also known as assessment for learning, highlights the weakness of students and suggests approaches they need to pursue in order to improve.

In terms of undergraduate studies in Law, instructors need to provide evaluative feedback by submitting a grade at the end of the term. Grades matter a lot for law students because of the highly competitive nature of opportunities like jobs in law firms, judicial clerkships and graduate studies. Nonetheless, evaluative feedback is not the only type of feedback that instructors should be providing; advisory feedback must also be provided and is where the focus should be. And the reason behind this focus is the emphasis placed on students’ writing. In the course of their academic tenure, students acquire knowledge and learn concepts, but also develop skills—which most are in the process of perfecting. This is especially true in Law, where students are working on their legal writing and reasoning techniques throughout their studies and beyond. Thus, if instructors wish for the meaningful improvement of their students’ skills, one way to make this happen is to implement a marking rubric encouraging advisory feedback.

Think before you mark: The first step to meaningful feedback 

While rubrics cannot be viewed as the only solution to bolster academic success, rubrics are potentially useful in this matter. Nowadays, an increasing number of instructors are marking their students’ assignments with the help of rubrics. I also had the opportunity to rely on that tool to evaluate my group’s 21 case briefs, where I can say that it is challenging to implement both types of feedback. My focus leaned more towards attributing the right mark in each category rather than on the areas where there is room for improvement. The grid, simultaneously, draws you closer towards evaluative feedback but detracts your attention from advisory feedback.

Marking grids should be devised as tools that work towards providing better advisory feedback. In order to do so, it requires instructors to take students’ assessment seriously and do it with the right mindset. Indeed, when an instructor marks without the clear intention to help students improve the work they submitted, it becomes easier to be distracted from assessment for learning and revert to evaluative feedback. This is often the case when an instructor treats grading with disgust: instead of taking the time to write insightful feedback, the instructor is likely to rush through the task, which deprives students of the help they rightfully deserve.

In conclusion, after my first marking experience, I believe that the solution to seeing more advisory feedback from instructors is a student-centered approach towards teaching. In other words, we, instructors and TLs, must keep the student in mind in every single aspect of our pedagogy. On that note, my post leaves one question for you, Teaching for Learning @ McGill blog followers: Is assessment for learning enough of a reason to make marking more enjoyable or, at the very least, get instructors to swallow that pill?

Check out the other posts in the Law series:

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Third year student at McGill University Faculty of Law.

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