Assessment for Learner Responsibility

On Monday, I attended a Learning Enhancement Network event here at Strathclyde on Assessment for Learner Responsibility.  Strathclyde is in the process of revising its assessment policy, and this event brought together staff from across the university, together with a number of student representatives and some colleagues from other universities. 

The University of Edinburgh has recently completed a similar process, and Nigel Seaton from Edinburgh’s College of Science and Engineering presented the outcomes of this process.  It was particularly interesting to see that all assessment in the College is now formative, in that students receive feedback for all the work they do – including formal examinations.  I really like this: as both a student and a tutor I always found it hugely frustrating to not be able to get or give feedback from the most important assessments beyond a bald grade or classification.  This is particularly important for students who experience signficantly worse performance in these assessments than in earlier coursework, and who are often bewildered, demoralised and demotivated by the lack of information provided.  The Data Protection and Freedom of Information Acts make the disclosure of examiners’ comments a legal obligation, but it’s nice to see this spun positively and used as a real learning opportunity rather than just warning markers not to make rude comments on exam scripts.

The College will also be introducing an eportfolio system, not for PDP but for use as a subject-specific learning and reflection aid for students, another very appealing idea. 

Jim Baxter from Strathclyde’s Department of Psychology gave a very entertaining presentation on collaborative WebCT-based activities introduced to the first year course in collaboration with the REAP project.  This involved a lot of collaborative work, something which had already been raised by Nigel and which was returned to in the afternoon’s breakout discussions.  I’ve never been a fan of group assessment, peer assessment, and other activities which force people into social models regardless of whether that is what is right for them, and I was pleased to see that I wasn’t the only one who felt some unease about compelling students to take part in such activities.  There was genuine agreement that there’s a need to respect all different learning styles and that there may be a tension between fashionable approaches and what’s actually best for an individual.  Staff reported that the majority of students themselves said that they dislike group work, although it’s regarded far more positively in post-graduation surveys – which is rather interesting itself, perhaps extroverts are more likely to complete surveys..?

One issue which concerned me is the observation that a student can be prevented from sitting the final examination for a course if they haven’t participated in group activities.  The justification for this is that these activities are detailed in the course materials so they knew what they were signing up for – but surely students should be studying a course because they’re interested in the subject and not because they can cope with the teaching style, and really shouldn’t be prevented from studying their chosen subject because they are don’t have a particular learning style.  The principle that students should have a choice in the methods and timing of assessment is therefore very welcome.

David Nicol presented the eleven principles of good assessment practive which were the initial outcomes from the university’s working group examining the assessment policy and from David’s long interest in this area.  These covered engagement to stimulate learning through clarificiation of what constitutes good practice, encouraging ‘time and effort’ on educationally purposeful tasks, high quality feedback, opportunties to close the feedback look, encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem and encourage dialogue about learning between all stakeholders.  Other principles focused on empowerment, sharing responsibility for learning with students by facilitating self-assessment and reflection, giving learners choice in the nature, methods, criteria and timing of assessment, involving students in policy and practice decisions and supporting the development of learner communities and social integration. 

A particular strength of the day was the involvement of Strathclyde students and the opportunity the day gave for dialogue between staff and learners.  The greatest concerns which emerged from the afternoon breakout discussions were time, feedback and over-examining.

Deadline coordination is perhaps a particular issue at Strathclyde which has a very broad first year curriculum: in the Faculty of Law, Arts and Social Sciences, for example, students have to study five potentially quite disparate subjects, all of which tend to set the same deadlines for work.  There were occasional examples of the principle of ‘giving learners choice in the timing of assessment tasks’, for example the lecturer who negotiates deadlines with his classes.  Our group spent some time lusting after a hypothetical ‘assessment booking system’ which course coordinators could use to pick ‘slots’ for assessment deadlines – perhaps something the Enterprise SIG could look at :-)

Feedback was another major issue for the students.  They appreciate detailed constructive feedback, particularly where it explains marks in relation to published assessment criteria and offers suggestions for improving weak areas as well as highlighting strengths.  There were a few examples of bad practice, with ‘feedback’ which consisted of a smiley face and a mark being a particular low, but not many examples of truly detailed feedback.  The timeliness of feedback was also a concern: as one student observed, ‘how can I learn from my feedback if I don’t get it until after I’ve submitted my next assignment?’

Students and staff were both concerned that students are being over-examined.  Virtually every piece of work a student submits contributes towards the final mark for the course, meaning that students don’t have a space to fail.  The students in our group actually wanted more formative assessment, practice excercises particularly when undertaking a new type of task they hadn’t encountered before, and the opportunity to experiment and learn before being summatively assessed.

Other issues that emerged were the desire to offer staff incentives and reward innovative and engaging projects, training for staff in how to write content that actually will engage learners, and the real desire to share innovation throughout the university.