Having heard a number of students complain about the lack of exam feedback they received from QUB, The Gown thought it was time to investigate what the university’s policy on the matter is. As you are all aware, when you log in to view your results on QOL you are given one final mark for each module. However, that mark more than likely comprises at least two different pieces of coursework or examinations. An English or History student, for example, may have written two summative essays and completed a timed exam also. So how do you find out what mark you achieved in those essays, and how you could improve in order to get higher marks next time round? It seems to be the case that the majority of the student body are oblivious to the answer, and in some cases unaware that there is even a feedback procedure in existence.
Under the Data Protection Act 1988, universities are under no obligation to release exam scripts to students. However, if the examiner has written comments on a separate piece of paper, then a student should be given this if they request it. If the examiner has written his/her comments on the actual script, then these should be reproduced on a separate page and given to the student. It is important to remember here that examiners are not required to write comments about every piece of work they mark.
The Gown unearthed an online article written in 2006 for theoxfordstudent, the student newspaper at Oxford University, which expressed concerns about how the university handled marks and feedback. The reporters stated that they contacted all 18 members of the Russell group (QUB became a member in late 2006), a consortium of the UK’s leading universities, and could reveal from their investigation that all universities apart from Oxford offered examiners’ comments in some form or another. So as a relatively new addition to the Russell Group, are QUB failing its students and falling short of standards which are withheld by the other prestigious universities?
Professor Estelle Sheehan, feedback officer for the school of English, told The Gown, “Feedback may be obtained for a student if the student requests it within five working days after the publication of results. This deadline is advertised to students well in
advance of the examination period and is included in the student QOL information regarding examinations and submission procedures.” Does this suggest that students at QUB need to be more observant of information regarding issues like this? Or does the university need to be more blatant in their providing of it? Not according to Professor Joan Rahilly, who told The Gown that the information held by Professor Sheehan and Professor Ivan Herbison (exams officer) “are accessed by high numbers of our students.”
Kevin Kelly, VP for Education, conveyed a similarly positive outlook when he told The Gown that as of yet no students have approached him with queries on exam feedback. He also gave a glowing report on the school of Geography and claimed that as a geography student at QUB he never had any problems with receiving breakdowns of marks or examiners’ comments.
In order to paint a bigger picture, The Gown went in search of more information on exam feedback from National University of Ireland, Galway. We spoke to Professor Terrence McDonough from the school of Economics in order to hear what his views on the issue were. “Most students don’t seem to care unless they’ve failed,” he said. “However, if a student receives a mark which they believe is incorrect or a lot lower than they expected, then it would make sense to come and ask me about it,” he continued. Professor McDonough was of the opinion that providing feedback can only do so much, that it is in the hands of the students themselves to improve their mark next time round, but “it might be helpful in certain circumstances.” He concluded that, “people frequently know why they fail.”
Dr Daniel Kowlasky from the school of history at QUB echoed McDonough’s sentiments saying, “If a student achieved a poor mark, the reason is almost always a lack of preparation and dedication to the class and subject.” He went on to tell us what his own plan of action would be when a student approaches him about marks. “I think that if a student contacted a lecturer and asked for individual feedback on how to perform better in an exam, the instructor would willingly help out, and might even dig the exam in question out of the archive. I have done this on occasion, though I’ve never been allowed to actually give the exam back to the student. In general, after an exam is taken, there isn’t too much to convey to the student apart from the mark.” Similarly to the majority of teaching staff at QUB, Dr Kowalsky is of the opinion that the learning, teaching and feedback should happen in weekly meetings during term time. Reflecting on his own time at university, Dr Kowalsky told The Gown that when he was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, he received all his marked exams, but later as an MA and PhD student at New Mexico and Wisconsin he was never permitted to see any of his exams, nor was he given any breakdown or detailed feedback. Looking back, he expresses no regret at being denied this information and states that even though he still has those exams from his undergraduate days, he would have no inclination to ever look at them again.
Carmel Beaney, secretary for the School of English, put forward her non-academic view that, “feedback on formative work is arguably more valuable than feedback on summative work, as it can be applied to summative work. Also, I don’t know how many Schools issue marks for formative work, but marks can distract from the feedback itself.”