There continues to be interest in the kind of feedback that helps students make changes that improve their work. Take something called feed-forward, for example. It's defined as “timely and constructive feedback that feeds into the next assignment.” (p. 451) Here's a study that assessed a unique form of feed-forward.
The students in the study were seniors enrolled in a three-year criminology program at a university in Australia. In the course where the study took place, assignments include a traditional exam that tests content knowledge and preparation of a case study of a youth agency or organization. “The aim ... is for students to explore the ways in which community agencies, through services designed to address such problem areas, may also contribute directly and indirectly to crime prevention.” (p. 454) The course website lists this question as the overarching one for the assignment. “From what I have read and from my observations of my chosen agency, what have I learned about working with young people that might relate directly or indirectly to youth crime and/or crime prevention?” (p. 454)
The objective of the feed-forward exercise “was to improve students' understanding(s) of the kind of coherence and integration which should characterize complex pieces of assessment and hence to improve the quality of their own case studies.” (p. 454) To accomplish that goal, the instructor posted online six anonymous examples of previous case studies (posted with permission, of course). They ranged in quality from outstanding to barely passing. Students selected three of these exemplars. Taking the position of teacher, they then graded the three. Using between 100 and 150 words for each exemplar, they explained the rationale behind their grade. A “tips sheet” on the course website offered some questions they were to consider as they evaluated each of the exemplars. For example, “Can you follow [the assignment]?” “Is it coherent?” “Does it move along smoothly?” “Does the writer sound like he/she really knows what they are talking about?” “Is there a sense of depth of understanding?” “Does it link [to] the literature [when discussing] the organization?” (p. 456)
This activity was a graded assignment worth 10 percent of the case study project grade, which was worth 30 percent of the course grade. The various grades assigned to each exemplar, along with the grades given to them by the instructional team, were subsequently posted.
Did the opportunity to read and assess case studies written by other students improve the grades these students received on their case studies when compared with a cohort who did not complete the feed-forward activity? It did. Researchers describe the improvement as “significant” and point out that it crossed all ability levels. While students with higher GPAs on entry still scored higher on their case studies, students with lower GPAs also significantly improved their grades. (p. 463)
Also of note: these students were able to fairly accurately identify the quality levels of the various exemplars. “There was broad, but not close, agreement between staff and students on the relative merits of the exemplars as indicated by mean marks, although the actual range of marks allocated by students varied considerably.” (p. 459) And they did this without the teacher devoting class time to the mechanics of case study assessment.
The researchers conclude by asking whether a 7 percent improvement in one of the major assignments in the course justifies the inclusion of a feed-forward activity such as this one. They say that decision belongs to course designers, and it does. But their research does offer evidence that looking at the work of other students and making a judgment about it does in some way help students improve their own work. That's not always the result when students read the comments written by teachers on their papers.
Wimshurst, K., and Manning, M. (2013). Feed-forward assessment, exemplars and peer marking: evidence of efficacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38 (4), 451-465.