The Inversion of Feedback in University

Report books were fascinating at a younger age. Whether you were struggling or soaring, the numbers mattered as a symbol of pride and a validation of one’s infant identity. I took relish in continually climbing up the overall school rankings from Pri 2 to Pri 6. Yet despite my love for numbers, my favourite part of opening my report book at year’s end lies elsewhere:

Form Teacher’s Remarks.

Never mind that it was only a short paragraph, and always about my being “diligent” but “quiet” and needing to speak up more in class. I looked forward to it because it was the most human thing inside. It seemed to affirm, in ink, that I – or anyone else – cannot be reduced to mere numbers.

In secondary/high school, I’d receive comments from all my teachers on a termly basis. But it was electronic and, feeling weaker bonds with my teachers, rather less significant. What more I’ve had enough of being told I was “quiet”. I know, I know, but can you all just be quiet already!

But now that I’m well into university, I realize I do miss feedback, even if the nature has changed. I no longer seek affirmation; I want constructive criticism. Not about me as a person, but about me as a student. I know, “quiet” is still my order of the day, and it’s something I ought to contend with from my own reserves. What I want is very achievable.

Teachers, would it be okay to give us more feedback on our assignments?

From here it might be obvious I’m an Arts student. Arts students would benefit greatly from academic feedback because there are no clear-cut solutions to refer to. There are tutors who give a lot of constructive criticism and give a B grade – I am most often convinced. And then there are teachers whose pens are running out of ink, so they just put a “well done” and give an A grade – that’s nice, but why?? I can’t figure out what exactly I did to merit it.

Maybe I should just take the good grade and scram, but wasn’t it about the learning?

There is certainly the option of arranging for consultations, but that strikes me as a very inefficient afterthought. I know teachers have a lot of papers to peruse, alongside their own academic work. Yet what’s so difficult about writing down the thoughts that must have gone through their minds before deciding on the grades? If it’s to avoid follow-up debates with students, by denying them the tools for contestation, then how can we call universities the sites of higher learning?

And don’t… don’t get me started on unreturned scripts. If you haven’t made the connection, think exam scripts.

For convenience, I will focus on my major. In 3 semesters I have taken 9 Sociology modules. Among them I’ve had 9 final exams, but only 1 single mid-term test. Anyone can figure that timed essay assignments demand very different skills from term papers and presentations. If this is a systematic model of higher education, then it might be called “Scram: Figure out yourself or too bad!”

I don’t know the reasoning behind not giving feedback for exams. Maybe it’s linked with anonymous marking, such that it’s at least very inefficient to trace the student numbers to the students. Maybe there are multiple markers and no uniform critique. Fair enough, but these for me pale greatly in comparison to the constraints on learning. If exams represent the primary mode of assessment, why is there no way for students to learn from their very attempts?

In contrast, teachers have access to an avalanche of feedback through the online Student Feedback Exercise, which NUS students participate in if only to amass more module bidding points. The irony is stark. Is the university a place for students to learn, or a place for teachers to learn (which some don’t do very well)? Even if individual teachers and students are willing to learn from each other, the exam practices in place make it more difficult than it should be.

I don’t need a report book anymore. But the non-human institution might need one.

The Inversion of Feedback in University
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