Case Study 1


This case study focused on an interactive teaching session which was co-delivered by two members of staff in a large tiered lecture theatre.

It involved 139 first year students, who were in their seventh week of study on a core theory module.

By the time of the workshop, students had been introduced to important theoretical viewpoints via lectures, seminar activities, required reading and discussion tasks. The students still had three weeks to go before their first mini-assignment was due in (a reflective commentary, worth 30% of the module marks, which was designed to evaluate the extent to which they had grasped a crucial key concept at this relatively early stage). While some had made a start on this assignment, many had not.

What was the rationale for trying to boost feedback at this point?

Staff claimed that students often find this module challenging, because it introduces them to a vital key concept which they have rarely come across before.  In addition, the concept is troublesome, mainly because it is counter-intuitive. Based on their past experience of teaching the module content, they knew that many students fail to get to grips with this important concept by the time the first assignment is due, and many hand in work which mistakes this concept for another similar-sounding one.  Because ‘doing badly’ on an early assignment  can knock their confidence, they were keen to help them gain informal feedback to try and pre-empt this situation. The idea was that feedback at this stage could be timely and forward-looking, helping students to identify

  • the extent to which they really understood tutors’ expectations
  • the extent to which they were on track to meet these expectations
  • a range of possible moves to improve their learning outcomes

What was done to boost feedback?

The teaching session was designed to emphatically draw  students’ attention to some of the common conceptual mistakes novices often make in this subject domain. This was done by creating a resource pack which contained four 500-word explanations of the key concept they needed to grasp. The four explanations had been produced, with consent for them to be adapted and used in workshops, by students in previous years, and were in the form of rough drafts and initial musings, rather than polished assignments. The teaching team selected and adapted them carefully to represent a range of standards, from exceptionally accomplished work at one end of the spectrum, to writing which revealed the common conceptual mistake they particularly wished to highlight at the other.

Before students came to the lecture, the teaching team set them a directed study task. They were asked to prepare their own 500-word explanation of the key concept, which they brought along to the session. They were advised that the whole activity was formative, and was geared to help them learn, so they should attempt to put their formal academic writing skills into practice by having a go before it counts.

The two hour session was then set up in the following way:

Explaining the rationale

At the start of the session staff briefly explained the broad rationale for the workshop, and the ways in which they hoped students would benefit from the activities. These included giving students the opportunity to

  • engage actively with the assessment criteria
  • discuss with tutors why and how the criteria can be applied to student work
  • see concrete examples of effective and less effective explanations of the concept
  • build their experience in making qualitative judgments and generating feedback
  • develop insights which would enable them to evaluate the quality of their own explanation, in time to make adjustments, if necessary

Focusing on the assessment criteria

Next, the teaching team shared and discussed the assessment criteria and grade bands they would be using to evaluate each exemplar. These were turned into questions students could ask themselves when trying to form judgments about the quality of each explanation in the resource pack we provided.

Ranking the exemplars

Students were then asked to work individually on the exemplars, reading them through several times and making notes about the things they noticed about each one. They were asked to do this in silence, as they would in exam conditions, so that people could concentrate. They were also asked not to write on the scripts themselves, which were all collected in at the end of the session.

Once they had finished, students were invited to complete the first element on a worksheet, which asked them to place the 4 exemplars in rank order, starting with the ‘best’.

Writing a review and producing feedback comments

Students were then invited, on the next part of their worksheet, to create an individual review for each of the four examples in turn. They were asked to be constructive: highlighting any strengths they observed in each answer and generating feedback comments which would help the student-writer of each piece to improve their work yet further.  They were reminded of the importance of using the criteria to help compile each review.

Opening up assessment and feedback dialogues

Once the students had completed their reviews, staff went about the tutor ‘reveal.’ They did this by asking students to go through each exemplar with us one by one, imagining where they thought each would be placed if it were a cursor on a spectrum which spanned the grade boundaries. They did this in the form of a game show, with students calling out and waving whether they thought the cursor should be higher or lower for each. During the process, they revealed and discussed their views of each exemplar, identifying the feedback that they would offer to help move each exemplar’s cursor further towards the upper end of the spectrum. They also encouraged students to think about any ‘surprises,’ and allowed plenty of time for students to return to have another look at the four examples, and discuss them with their peers, in the light of what they had just heard.

Throughout this phase, and at the end, students were encouraged to ask any questions and request any points for clarification.

Self evaluation

Finally, students were asked to (privately) evaluate the piece of work they had prepared, calibrating it against the exemplars and generating feedback for themselves. They were advised to share and discuss their writing with peers if they felt comfortable doing so, and several did.

The session rounded off with a five minute paper, with students being asked to make a note of the key things they had discovered during the workshop. This material provided teaching staff with information which helped them adjust future sessions to meet students’ needs.

Evaluation of the session

78 students gave feedback on their views of the value of the session. Of these, interestingly,  64 planned to modify their approaches to learning in the light of the feedback they’d gained.

For instance, 43 had decided they needed to read more widely, as the following comments illuminate:

I’m going to do more reading to help me understand the concept

I need to do a lot more reading round the subject area to gain a better understanding of the subject

Further, 27 had identified a need to look carefully at the question and the criteria, to make sure they fully understood what they were being asked to do in the upcoming mini-assignment:

Making sure you actually understand the question is vital

I need to analyse if I’ve answered the question

Thus, even though the exemplars showed writing in which students were formatively rehearsing ideas , rather than the summative assignment, learners were implicitly making the links and focusing their attention on future actions