In my last blog post, I introduced Rachel Forsyth, author of Confident Assessment in Higher Education (2023). She shared her perspectives on what makes assessment practices effective for faculty and students. In this portion of the interview, we moved on to discuss giving students feedback and using technology for teaching, learning, and assessment. I learned much from considering her thoughts on assessment and feedback practices and anticipate that you will glean some insights from this second half of the interview as well.

Aaron Trocki (AT): How is feedback different from assessment and how does feedback promote student learning?

Rachel Forsyth (RF): This is an excellent question, because they’re often mixed up together. I’m not sure they should be. The purpose of an assessment is to help students get a qualification to see how well they’re doing. There are many other different purposes which you’ll find in the book. The purpose of feedback is actually different. It should be to help the students succeed. All the research on this indicates that it should be developmental. By definition, feedback should promote student learning. If it doesn’t, it’s not really feedback, is it? The feedback should be targeted on their future performance on the summative assessment task and should be written with that in mind.

Take feedback on formative assessment, so something the students do to prepare for summative assessment, it might be focused more on error correction and improvement of content or style. That’s not actually very useful if you [provide feedback] on summative assessment, even though we all do it because it helps us to justify the grades. I think the main thing I would say about feedback is that it shouldn’t be used to justify the grades. You’ve used a marking rubric or something like that, then that justifies the grade. You point to that. The feedback should be about, “Well, what should you do in the future to improve?” I think that practice is really hard. You’ve got to be quite confident to feel able to give feedback.

AT: How do you see current and upcoming technology affecting how faculty perform assessment and feedback?

RF: Technology is super useful in teaching and assessment, as long as it serves the teacher’s purposes. If you want to test a lot of knowledge, you might use multiple choice questions, computer-generated, computer-delivered, randomized questions to cover a wide range of areas. Then, you can use technology for automated grading. It can save you a lot of time and allow students to get good coverage, get rapid responses, and see where the errors are. That’s just one example. When you want them to learn a lot of knowledge, technology is helping that process. Another example is literature searches supported with technology, which finds and summarizes papers. We’re going to get a lot of that with generative AI in the next probably few months, certainly few years. If we want students to use a lot of literature, then that could be really helpful.

If we want them to write their own literature reviews, we have to be really careful about it. It’s just about, again, purpose. What have we got in mind here? Just managing what students do in class can be really helpful with your learning management system, grade books, spreadsheets, whatever. If the teacher or faculty member doesn’t know what they want to do with that technology, it’s just performative. I’ve spent the last six months or so really trying to get to grips with generative AI. I don’t see any substitute for the teacher here. As humans, we have to know what we want students to do and make decisions and judgments about technology. I think technology will have an impact and people will be concerned about what students do with new technologies.

The reason that’s suddenly a problem in ’22, ’23 is that we got some really powerful technology almost out of nowhere for most of us. We hadn’t heard of it before. It became obvious that AI could do things that we might want students to do. I think this is a good thing. It makes us think about the purpose. Why do we make students do a literature review? Is it because that process in itself is valuable or is it because we just want them to read a lot of stuff? If we want them to read a lot of stuff, then maybe the tools will speed up them getting there. If not, we’ll have to supervise them doing it in class. This question about purpose is important. Faculty members are clever people who are able to do this work. We have almost discouraged them from thinking too much about assessment because we’ve had quite a narrow range of ways that we do it. I think this is a great opportunity for people to show how good they are at thinking, which is their jobs mostly.

AT: You see this [technology and generative AI] as a positive for faculty as opposed to another thing we have to deal with or figure out.

RF: Absolutely. If you don’t want your students to use these tools, then you say that and you supervise their assessment. You have to do that. That’s the consequence of it. That might be a first step for some people, but then it’s thinking about, well, “How could these tools help the students?” It’s the same with any technology. It’s a spreadsheet, the calculator, they’re all things that we’ve brought into teaching over the years. We’d make those decisions about whether they’re going to be useful or not. That’s the main thing. Human judgment is not replaced by generative AI tools right now. I say right now. The way that they are trained, I don’t really see how they can do what we want to do in education. Famous last words.

AT: Your book is titled Confident Assessment in Higher Education. What does assessing with confidence look like?

RF: I think a confident assessor can take the right decisions for their courses so that assessment is valid, reliable, and equitable. They’re going to be able to reflect on their assessment work and discuss it with peers and students. It’s really important to feel comfortable with continuous improvement. We can make mistakes here. Now, we don’t want to make mistakes that affect students’ futures. We need to be careful and thoughtful. We don’t have to achieve perfection all the time. Teaching is just a human activity.

AT: Excellent. I love that you emphasize the human element. We all need to be gracious with each other and a little bit more patient, possibly when it comes to marks and grading.

RF: Exactly.

AT: What else would you like to tell us about assessment and feedback in higher education? Where do you see trends in these areas heading?

RF: I hope that faculty members, students, and other people who are really important in assessment, who I’ve not really mentioned very much — registrars, course managers, academic tutors, disability services […] I just hope that they will continue to develop their assessment literacy so that everyone becomes more confident and less fearful about assessment. We see assessment as an integrated part of the educational process and not something that we add on to torture people at the end. Faculty too, because people often say they hate grading. I feel like your aim should be to enjoy grading because you feel so proud of what your students have done. I know that’s not always going to be possible, but you can aspire to it. Just keep building that confidence so that everybody feels they’re doing good things in relation to assessment as it’s such an important part of their job.

In summary, Rachel disambiguated assessment and feedback and encouraged faculty to establish purpose before planning their assessment and feedback practices. Establishing purpose helps in the consideration of what students should demonstrate. Does the technology suit the purposes of the teacher? Once the purpose is established, faculty can better tackle decisions about technology, including the use of generative AI. Teaching is a human endeavor, and we should build confidence and find enjoyment in assessing student progress. We appreciate the insights Rachel shared in this interview. These perspectives and recommendations provide us with some framing for our continued investigation of models of assessment and feedback.

Aaron Trocki is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Elon University. He is the CEL Scholar for 2023-2024 and is focusing on models of assessment and feedback outside of traditional grading assumptions and approaches.

How to Cite this Post

Trocki, Aaron. 2023. “Perspectives on Assessment and Feedback: Interview with Rachel Forsyth, Part 2.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. October 3, 2023.