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Should we help students ‘game the system’?

A different way to view feedback and feed forward

In course structures where assessments are mostly weighted towards the end of a course, with few opportunities to test themselves or receive feedback, the few assessment opportunities students have can be critical to their success in the course and potentially in life. This provides an incentive for students to engage with anything that promises to help them achieve these overarching life goals. Naturally in this environment, a certain portion of students will ‘game the system’, interrogating tutors to get clues to answers for assignments, taking short cuts, submitting assignments written by someone else (e.g. getting help from peers and online sites) and even ‘cheating’. 

This instrumental approach to feedback partly arises out of a prevailing discourse of students as consumers, resulting in an expectation of being told what to do to pass or get high grades, as part of a promised service (Carless & Boud, 2018, p. 1317). It is also a fact that many students get little feedback until after the assessment, which from their perspective, is too late to improve!

Hattie, Carless, Dawson and Boud’s evidence-based approaches to contemporary models of assessment and feedback call for:

  • the development of student self-regulation in learning
  • a culture of student and teacher feedback literacy
  • feedback embedded iteratively in a course via the curriculum, aligned to specified learning outcomes.

Creating the path through your course

In a real journey, it is too late for the traveller to receive all the instruction, hints and answers after they have failed to complete the journey and ended up in hospital with dehydration. The guidance must be given from the start of the journey and continuously throughout. 

So what if ‘cheat sheets’, hints, model answers and detailed feedback for wrong answers were available all through a course, from beginning to end? What harm could that do?

Think of a course first as a journey that students take. Then think of that journey as a game – one path through the game of their degree. What if you acknowledged the student journey in your course, their desire to ‘win’, and their determination to ‘play the game like a pro’, and prepared your course with that in mind?

Student: Am I on the right track?

Here are our students on the pathway complete with backpacks full of your course content – all of its materials, learning activities and assessment. Think of the students’ progress in your course as a journey through an unknown landscape. In any journey, we undertake research, we look for signs, tips and people to help us.

Undergraduates and in particular first year cohorts are novices in this journey. They need signs (also known as scaffolding) to let them know they are on the right track to avoid meandering through a diversion that will take them away from their ultimate destination (a pass in your course). You can create signs, hints and tips to help them get around barriers and to avoid detours and diversions.

Be proactive – think of signs and hints along the way that help students (feed forward) and create formative ‘feedback’ to provide them with some idea if they are on the right track.

Feed forward provides hints to students on potential difficulties and misunderstandings of course content and concepts, and clear guidance on the students’ strengths and areas for improvement for better results. FAQ’s from previous courses from student experience can provide valuable feed forward content, as can student question forums, and links to targeted resources can accompany these warnings.

Formative Feedback can be provided to help students improve along the way (for example automated feedback in self-check quizzes, or allowing draft submissions of essays).

Student: Does anyone know about…?

Travellers also share information and hints among themselves, to help each other to get to their destination. Could your course also include opportunities for students to collaborate, support and provide feedback to their peers?
Enabling students to work in groups to interpret the ‘map’ can boost their chances of successful arrival at their destination, or the learning outcomes – through peer review, peer feedback and collaborative activities.

Academic: How does this help me?

Enabling students to ‘game the system’ by providing keys, tips, hints and allowing them to collaborate at certain points to find answers might take the load off you as the sole source of advice. This is particularly helpful when you are dealing with large cohorts, as distributed feedback and feed forward contribute to the students’ self-regulated learning capacity.

These issues will be discussed in more depth in a Coffee Course coming up in 2022!


References

Boud D. and Associates (2010). Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Carless D. (2007). Learning oriented assessment:  conceptual bases and practical implications. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44 (1): 57-66.

Dawson P., Carless D. & Lee P.P.W. (2021). Authentic feedback: Supporting learners to engage in disciplinary feedback practices. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46 (2): 286-296. doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1769022

Hattie J. & Timperley H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77 (1): 81-112. doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487

Resources

Teaching at ANU SharePoint site – Feedback

Baughan P. (Ed.) 2021. On your marks: Learner-focused feedback practices and feedback literacy. Available here on the Teaching at ANU SharePoint site.

Sydney University “The power of feed forward”

October 2021



Jill Lyall is an Education Designer in the Education Design team at the Centre for Learning and Teaching.

Comments 2

  1. I suggest you don’t need a fancy term for courses with few opportunities for feedback: it is just bad course design. The term “Feed forward” is an unnecessary tautology. If you comments don’t help the students improve their grade, it is not feedback, or forward, or anything but a waste of everyone’s time.

    Providing hints, model answers and feedback through a course, from beginning are not “cheat sheets”, just good design. I was trained as a computer applications developer, so I think of course design like software. Start with the requirements (learning objectives), break the problem into components (learning modules), test each one (summative assessment, with formative feedback), then assemble the whole and test (end of course assessment, and end of degree capstone).

    1. What you say is true, Tom – in an ideal world. This article is meant to provoke a discussion, and have us reflect on whether much of what is interpreted as “cheating” or “gaming the system” is simply students attempting to gain mastery or essential knowledge and skills, in a system which is often set up to be competitive and almost adversarial. If we think of study as a part of the “game of life” it is one way to imagine the things students need to win!

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