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Digital education

The myth of the silver bullet: feedback through GradeMark

20 May 2015

by Catherine Emmett

Learning pyramid

Cognitive psychologists and pedagogical researchers frequently warn against the idea of a pedagogical ‘silver bullet’ (a simple solution to a complex issue). In the past 50 years, a whole range of these kinds of ideas have been debunked – including the idea of basing teaching on learning styles (Pashler et al, 2008), the idea of percentage remembered over time based on modalities of learning, called the Learning Pyramid (Benjes-Small, 2014), and Prensky’s idea of digital natives vs digital immigrants impacting on learning (Emmett, 2015; Helsper & Eynon, 2009; HEA, 2011) – to name but a few!

So we should be on our guard whenever the merest suggestion of a pedagogical silver bullet is raised, and explore with a critical eye.

Technology is no different. I want to spend a few minutes debunking the myth that the use of GradeMark is a silver bullet for assessment and feedback. It’s true that GradeMark offers the opportunity to provide feedback through several methods, including the ability to use a custom bank of reusable annotated feedback comments. But, how much does the use of GradeMark affect the feedback itself?

Whilst a Cardiff pilot study suggested some anecdotal evidence from assessors that they gave more feedback using GradeMark (over previous paper/form-based feedback sheets) the quality of feedback is more questionable. The study looked at healthcare students’ perceptions of feedback through GradeMark (Watkins et al, 2014), and found that the value students felt in the use of annotated feedback was affected by the quality of individual markers comments. Simply introducing the potential of annotated feedback through GradeMark could not address students’ concerns about the quality of annotated feedback. Overall, only 56% of students in the study were satisfied with the quality of annotated feedback provided to them. It is this concern we must address, not the tool by which feedback is delivered.

Ultimately, technology in and of itself is neither a silver bullet nor something to be ignored. Technology itself is not intrinsically effective for learning; it’s how and where you use its affordances to design teaching and assessment that helps students learn that counts. Used effectively, technology in teaching can support learning, but it’s important to see it in the right light.


Benjes-Small, C. 2014. Tales of the Undead…Learning Theories: The Learning Pyramid [Online]. ARCLog. Available at:

Higher Education Academy. 2011. The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education [Online]. Higher Education Academy. Available at:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork R. 2008. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3) [Online]. Available at:

Watkins, D., Dummer, P., Hawthorne, K., Cousins, J., Emmett, C. and Johnson, M. 2014. Healthcare Students’ Perceptions of Electronic Feedback through GradeMark. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research 13, pp. 27-47 [Online]. Available at: