Correspondence tuition

At the UK Open University, the distinction between the formative and summative functions of assessment has always been blurred. This is because our tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) and computer-marked assignments (old-fashioned CMAs or modern iCMAs) frequently count towards a student’s overall continuous assessment score. But yet tutors spend a huge amount of time writing comments on their students’ TMAs and we refer to the process as ‘correspondence tuition’ – a clear indication of the importance that we place on the formative potential of TMAs. In our distance-learning environment, where opportunities for face-to-face contact with students are extremely limited, the personalised teaching that takes place in correspondence tuition becomes extremely important.

Tutors correct mistakes on the student’s script and write detailed comments, with a summary on an assessment summary form. When I started work as an Open University tutor, 20 years ago, I took to correspondence tuition like a duck to water. I enjoyed teaching in this way and was told I was good at it. I provided very detailed comments and I spent ages on it. But was I wasting my time? These days, tutors on most modules mark against learning outcome and most TMAs are submitted and marked electronically. But many of our tutors continue to provide very detailed comments and to spend a huge amount of time on this. Many students are very grateful. However, in common with other universities, we know that some students don’t even bother to download the marked TMAs whilst others might download the assignment, but don’t engage with the detail of their tutor’s comments. I can’t help wondering if we might sometimes swamp our students with too much information; could ‘less’ sometimes be ‘more’?

Incidentally, there is a school of thought that says that we shouldn’t be giving marks alongside feedback. Although I think there can be real issues in providing marks (as a conventional percentage score) when marking against learning outcomes, my experience is that students engage with assessment tasks and with the feedback provided when the mark counts. We might wish that things were different, but I don’t think they are.

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