The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

The aim of this handbook is to supplement the existing one currently available on the Economics Network website. This first handbook focused on some of the important fundamentals of writing assessments such as ensuring they are designed to develop and promote the learning outcomes of the module. It also included some general discussion of various types of assessments, for example group work, presentations, multiple choice, essays etc. This handbook concentrates on certain types of assessment in more detail, including some case studies of how they have been introduced into economics modules. In addition, given the poor scores consistently found on feedback in the National Student Survey, a much greater emphasis has been placed on the issue of assessment.

1.2 The importance of assessment and feedback

It is worth repeating a point made in the initial handbook about the influential impact of assessment and feedback on student learning. For the majority of students the assessment on a module determines (a) what topics they study (b) how much time they spend studying and (c) how they go about studying. It tends to be the assessments rather than the teaching which for many students determines whether they take a surface or deep approach to their learning. Educational researchers have also stressed the importance of good feedback. Some influential meta-analyses have found that high-quality feedback is one of the most important determinants of student learning (Hattie at al., 1996; Black and William, 1998; Hattie and Jaeger, 1998).

Given the importance attached to assessment and feedback in the learning process it is somewhat worrying that much of the evidence suggests that the HE sector does not do it very well. In particular the standard of feedback received by students has come in for much criticism. As Rust et al. (2003) comments:

‘And if the literature suggests we are bad at assessment generally, the evidence is that it is in the area of feedback that we are possibly worst of all.’

QAA reviewers have commented regularly on the lack of adequate feedback given to students. The questions on feedback consistently receive the lowest satisfaction scores on the National Student Survey with, for instance, only 59% of respondents agreeing that ‘Feedback on my work has been prompt’ whilst only 57% agreed that ‘Feedback on my work has helped me to clarify things I did not understand’. These scores were significantly lower than those for other sections of the survey including those on teaching and overall satisfaction. For example 89% of respondents agreed that ‘Staff were good at explaining things’ while 84% agreed that ‘Overall I am satisfied with my course’. There is variation between different disciplines and unfortunately evidence from the NSS suggests that economics students are less satisfied than the average across all subjects on the assessment and feedback questions. The average score on the five questions on assessment and feedback was 60.4%, 4% lower than the average across all subjects with the worst performance relating to Question 8 – ‘I have received detailed comments on my coursework’. Only 52% of economics students agreed with the statement – 10% lower than the average across all subjects. Details can be seen in Table 1.

Table 1: National Student Survey Data 2010

Question All subjects (%) Economics (%)
The teaching on my course
 
 
1 – Staff are good at explaining things.
89
88 (-1)
2 – Staff have made the subject interesting.
81
75 (-6)
3 – Staff are enthusiastic about what they are teaching.
85
81 (-4)
4 – The course is intellectually stimulating.
85
86 (1)
Assessment and feedback
 
 
5 – The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance.
70
65 (-5)
6 – Assessment arrangements and marking have been fair.
73
75 (2)
7 – Feedback on my work has been prompt.
59
57 (-2)
8 – I have received detailed comments on my work.
62
52 (-10)
9 – Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand.
57
53 (-4)
Overall Satisfaction
 
 
22 – Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of the course.
84
85 (1)

Comments from student focus groups run by staff from the Economics Network in nine departments in the academic year 2010–11 were also not very favourable.

Student comments included:

‘You can get an essay with two completely different marks on like 51 and 84 and they can say the same thing ... we hardly actually get any constructive feedback.’

‘They just give me a mark that doesn’t help me in anyway.’

‘The feedback you get on a test is so bad, often you’ll just get a number and that’s it, or you will have a tick and good.’

This handbook will deal with feedback in some detail.

1.3 Why does our performance appear to be so disappointing?

It is probably a combination of resourcing issues and the use of traditional methods of feedback that are no longer very effective. Increasing student numbers and reduced unit costs have put pressures on the quality of the learning experience for undergraduates. Economies of scale can be found in the classroom by simply increasing the size of lectures, seminars and workshops. Evidence from Table 1 suggests that this has been achieved, whilst on the whole maintaining the quality of the teaching. However, finding economies of scale in traditional methods of assessment and feedback is more difficult. Producing written feedback on double the number of assignments usually means double the amount of work for the tutor. The rational response of many departments has been to:

  • reduce the amount of assessment, in particular formative assessment;
  • reduce the amount and quality of feedback provided on a particular piece of work;
  • make greater use of group assessments. This has also created problems with staff having to find ways of dealing with free riders and methods of allocating marks amongst the individual group members. Students have repeatedly expressed strong concerns about the use of summatively assessed group work.

There may also have been relatively modest innovation in assessment for two major reasons. Firstly staff may tend to overestimate the effectiveness of the feedback that they provide and therefore see no need to change. Survey evidence tends to support this proposition. For example Carless (2006) found that 38.4% of HE tutors thought students were ‘often given detailed feedback which helped them improve their next assignment’, whilst only 10.6% of students responded in the same way. A second reason for the lack of innovation may be because of the perceived risks involved. Tutors may be more willing to try different methods of teaching because if they are unproductive it only affects one class. However if they experiment with different types of assessment which prove to be ineffective, the impact could be much more significant and long lasting.

Even though there has been a reduction in the quantity of feedback and a relative lack of innovation in this area, many economics lecturers still devote a significant amount of time and effort to carefully written detailed comments in the expectation that they will be used. Unfortunately a substantial number of students fail to collect their assignments and a high proportion of those who do seem to ignore the feedback and repeat the same mistakes time after time. This suggests that tutors are spending significant amounts of time on an activity which is producing very limited learning benefits. The process appears to be both time consuming for the tutor and unproductive for the student. Given the educational evidence on the importance of feedback on the learning process this is a very puzzling finding. Why don’t students appear to engage with the feedback traditionally provided by tutors in the form of written comments on summatively assessed work? The next chapter will consider some possible explanations.