Reducing student anxiety whilst waiting for their marked assignments

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Submitting an assignment is usually accompanied by a sense of relief but then there is the wait for the mark and the feedback which can cause anxiety amongst students.  This is particularly the case for the first assignment on a new module and happened with DD212 Understanding Criminology in its first year of presentation. 

At the Open University (OU) part of our teaching is through written assessment feedback: explaining how well students have met the learning outcomes and met the assignment requirements.   So aside from the mark, there are the inserted comments in the text plus detailed general advice on strengths and weaknesses at the end. 

Most OU tutors work part-time and many teach on several modules.  Each tutor has 10 working days after the cut-off date to complete all the marking of a particular module assignment, called tutor marked assignments or TMAs.  The assignments are returned via an electronic assignment portal – the eTMA system  

Whilst some tutors mark all assignments early on and might return after three or four working days; others mark towards the end of the period.  Some tutors mark a few and return as they go along.  Unlike the end of module results, where the results are all released electronically at the same time, the electronic TMA system does not ‘hold’ marked TMAs and release them all at the same time.   This means that there is no standard point at which students receive their TMAs.  A tutor can mark and then return all TMAs at the same time but the eTMA system does not do this returning in an automated way. 

As many students are now on social media – for example some students set up their own module Facebook group – they are readily commenting on getting their assignments back.  This can then cause concern and raise anxiety amongst those who haven’t yet had their assignment returned.  This quote from the module Facebook group is typical of the comments made by students: 

It’s just frustrating when there’s a considerable amount of people with their results back and I’m still over here waiting 

Sometimes this results in telephone enquiries from anxious students to the Student Support Team (SST) and occasionally complaints.    

In autumn 2018, the Module Team of the new level 2 Criminology module (DD212 Understanding Criminology) were alerted by the Student Support Team that some students were ringing in about not receiving their marked TMA01. The module Chair was a member of the DD212 Facebook group and was alerted to student grumbles about waiting for their mark and feedback. The Module Team decided to ask tutors to return TMAs at the same time, that is on the 10th working day after submission date.  This was particularly important for TMA02 as that was due in 17th December but the University closed on 20th December for two weeks over Christmas and New Year.  Tutors thus had until 8th January to return the TMAs.   Mindful of a potentially wide variance between tutors marking and returning before the Christmas break and those marking after the break – and potentially not returning the TMAs until 8th January – this seemed particularly important.   The module team decided to implement this new module policy as an experiment for the whole of the module, that is, to cover TMAs 2- 5. 

It mostly worked – a couple of tutors forgot to follow this new policy and had to be reminded.  For one tutor who was going away three days after TMA03 cut-off date, and planning to go abroad after marking promptly with no  ability to return the whole group whilst away, it was agreed he go ahead but alert his students to this exception. 

The evaluation of this experiment looked at student complaints, student comments on the student Facebook group and tutor feedback.  There was anecdotal evidence from the Student Support Team of a reduction in student phone calls about TMA turnaround but no mechanism for recording these on the OU management information system. 

However, there was evidence of reduced student anxiety about when they would get their TMA marks back on the student Facebook group and these postings stopped from TMA03 onwards after the module TMA turnaround policy had bedded down.    

In addition, the feedback from the tutors, whilst mostly positive about the idea of the policy, did point out that it relied on tutors remembering the correct return date and for tutors working on multiple modules in particular, this was felt to be onerous, as these two comments illustrate:- 

much prefer this way of returning marks and feedback. I do hope this continues. It saves students worrying (or getting annoyed about) why some students have received their marks and others haven’t. 

On one hand I think this is a good idea. Everybody gets theirs back at the same time. On the other the stress of having to remember to send them back on a particular day and not on the day you marked the last one is difficult. 

This evaluation took the views of the students and tutors into account and found there is evidence of the practical benefits to students of returning all marked assignments at the same time and broad support from tutors to the idea of this policy. 

The evaluation of this module policy experiment recommended the following:- 

  1. That the Student Support Team creates a category for formally recording informal complaints from students about TMA turnaround time  
  1. That the FASS Teaching and Students Committee considers the required policy and technical changes need to implement a uniform 10 working-day TMA turnaround policy (excepting extensions), with a view to providing a recommendation for implementation of the new electronic TMA marking system, UNIWISE.  

Alison Penn – Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology

Dr Alison Penn | Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (

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