Quality Assurance and Enhancement

The main means of ensuring quality and standards in assessment and feedback practices in higher education are through the external examiner system and through questionnaires. The latter include end of module questionnaires used by academic departments as well as national survey instruments such as the UK National Student Survey (NSS) which has five questions dealing with assessment and feedback (see below). 

In Scotland the approach to quality and standards is enhancement-led and learner-centred. The Enhancement Themes are a key element of a five-part framework which has been designed to provide an integrated approach to quality and standards. The Enhancement Themes provide a national programme of activities in Scottish Higher Education aimed at developing and sharing good practice to enhance the student learning experience, facilitated by the QAA Scotland (see, www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk). In relation to assessment and feedback, Dai Hounsell (2007) produced a guide entitled 'Integrative Assessment: Monitoring students' experiences of assessment' which examines strategies to monitor and evaluate how well assessment and feedback practices were working in 2007 and suggests strategies to strenghten montoring and evaluation of such practices (www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/documents/IntegrativeAssessment/IAMonitoring.pdf ). Currently, David Nicol is contracted by the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland as a facilitator for the enhancement of assessment and feedback across the Scottish HE sector.

The NSS results

The National Student Survey (NSS) asks final year students to respond to a set of survey statements about their course and to signal their agreement or disagreement on a five point scale (from strongly agree to strongly disagree).  'Course' in the questionnaire refers to the whole undergraduate experience.  There are 22 survey items covering six categories - teaching, assessment and feedback, organisation and management, learning resources, personal development.  with item 22 asking for an overall judgement about the course (see Table below). The NSS is funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and administered by IPSOS Mori. More detail can be found here.

Every year and across all discipline areas and almost all institutions the NSS indicates that students are least satisfied with their assessment and feedback experience than with any other aspect of their course. The Table below shows the composite scores for the assessment and feedback sub-scale for 2008. In 2008, while 82% of students in England [and 86% in Scotland] were satisfied with the quality of their course, in the area of assessment and feedback satisfaction figures were considerably lower.


5. The criteria used in marking have been clear in advance. 69% 69%
6. Assessment arrangements and marking have been fair. 74% 74%
7. Feedback on my work has been prompt. 56% 51%
8. I have received detailed comments on my work. 61% 52%
9. Feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand. 56% 51%
22. Overall I am happy with the quality of the course. 82% 86%


The NSS: Strengths and Weakenesses

As well as helping to inform future students on their choice of course or institution, the NSS is used as the basis of numerous league tables and receives widespread publicity.  This has resulted in many institutions turning their attention to ways of improving their assessment and feedback results and particulary their feedback results, given that items 7, 8 and 9 seem to receive the lowest ratings by students.

The NSS has had a positive impact in drawing attention to assessment and feedback and their importance in the learning process. However, a weakness in this survey is its implied assumption that assessment and specifically feedback is a delivery process, and that if teachers could deliver feedback more rapidly (item 7), and in more detail (item 8) and in ways that clarified things students did not understand (item 9) then learning would be much enhanced.  Another assumption causing problems is that the NSS leads students to think that feedback is something that is written and is delivered after an assignment.

This 'transmission view' of feedback is flawed.  Sadler (2010) has shown that 'feedback as telling' cannot be the main approach to developing high level thinking skills in students. Nicol (2010) has shown that it is better to think of feedback as a dialogue. A summary of these papers can be found here pdf.

Improving quality of feedback to students

While the UK NSS has usefully drawn attention to assessment, and particularly to feedback as important components of the student experience, there are dangers in using this survey as a lens on what constitutes good quality assessment and feedback. The reason is that the NSS instrument is flawed to the extent that the survey items lead both students and teachers to assume that feedback is a delivery process: feedback is provided by teachers, it is what they write on students' scripts after a completed assignment. Hence any interventions that try to address feedback based on this flawed assumption are likely to fail.  Indeed, there is growing anecdotal evidence showing that such inverventions are having limited success across the HE sector.

So what can be done to improve assessment and feedback practices in higher education? In essence the argument in this website is that institutions and academic staff must re-think their assumptions about assessment and feedback and support changes in practice based on these refined conceptions (see, Nicol, 2008).  Feedback is not a delivery process: rather it involves a dialogue between students and teacher about their developing work. Feedback is not something provided only after an assignment has been produced: rather it is an ongoing and iterative process. Feedback is not only produced by teachers: it is also generated by students when they interact with content and it is generated by students during peer interactions, for example, when they work collaboratively or engage in reciprocal peer feedback (see PEER). There are significant long-term benefits to be gained from building students capability for self-regulation through self-assessment and peer feedback activities (see, Nicol, 2010). 

However, the question still remains for institutions taking part in the NSS: how can they improve their scores on the National Student Survey? Various strategies are required ranging from helping students develop a more sophisticated understanding of assessment and feedback so that they are better informed when they fill in the NSS to practical interventions that involve highlighting the different sources, formats and timings of feedback in courses and programmes. The idea is that students should be better informed about what feedback is and their own role in its production and use when they fill in the National Student Survey. Some practical strategies are suggested here.

Finally, it is important that institutions lobby for improvements in the form of the NSS as it is resulting in many funding interventions that do not accord with good practice in assessment and feedback. Other instruments such as the US National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) which is widely used across the US and Australia is much more sophisticated and its underlying assumptions are much more in line with what is known from the research about effective learning. Indeed this instrument does not ask what students think about teacher provision as happens in the NSS. Rather it asks what activities the students are actually engaging in during their studies. This aligns with the view that what students do while learning is much more imporant than what teachers do.