Phil Race

Assessment, learning and teaching in higher education

If I were in charge…

In an era where David Willetts, Michael Gove and colleagues seem so often to be pushing the clock back towards the 18th century when it comes to teaching, assessment and learning, I share this page to get you thinking about some alternatives.
What could we do to put assessment, learning and teaching right in higher education in the UK? Being provocative, at my workshops, I sometimes say ‘if I were Minister in charge of higher education’ for a day, and had a magic wand and could execute and implement some changes that day forward, here are some things I would do…. (and I explain why exactly I would do these things).
I invite contributions to this page from users of this site.

No assessment format could count more than 20% of a module or programme
This would help to diversify assessment, so that the same students were not repeatedly disadvantaged by particular assessment formats. In other words, the maximum that an unseen time-constrained written exam could count for would be 20% of the total, similarly essays, reports, dissertations, presentations, OSCEs and so on.

There would be no more silly relationships between word counts and credit points.
For example, no more regulations stating that a given number of credit points = 3000 words. Such ‘equivalences’ encourage low-level ‘word-spinning’, and give advantage to students who are good at ‘waffling’, and disadvantage students who are learning in a 2nd language. Shorter word-constrained tasks (such as a 200-word – exactly – summary, or a 150-word argument against something, or a 300-work review of three sources, and so on) generate student work (and thinking) of a higher quality, and take far less time to mark, and make marking much more reliable, and just about eliminate plagiarism possibilities.

No summative assessment could count for more than 25%
This is because students need formative feedback so much more than just end-point marks or grades, so that the standard of their end-point learning is far higher than it would otherwise be. In other words, when there’s too much summative assessment, we may manage to test what students have learned, but restrict what they might have learned.

Marks would not be allowed to be given to students!
Instead, students would be given back their marked work with feedback comments only, (assessors keeping records of the marks), and students would be given the opportunity to work out their marks from the feedback. If within 5% of the assessor’s marks, the students’ marks would count (or better still, the higher of the two marks would count (we’re rarely able to ensure the reliability of assessment to within 5% in any case).  If not within 5%, the assessor and student would meet to work out why there was a difference.

Students would be required to self-assess their work before handing it in
This can be done using a simple form asking students to rate their work against the criteria for the task. It then means that students think more deeply about what they are handing in, and assessors know what students think of their work while marking it, allowing much better feedback to be given. Some marks would be allocated to students’ self-assessment, encouraging them to be reflective about their work.

Much more attention would be paid to other ways of giving feedback to students, not just words on paper (or on screen)
Feedback on paper is the most dangerous, most widely-used, yet least effective way of helping students to learn from their triumphs and disasters. Face-to-face feedback helps students to make sense of their thinking, aided by tone of voice, facial expression, body language, encouraging smiles, speed of speech, emphasis on particular words, and the ability to fine-tune the feedback on the basis of how it is being received. Paper-based feedback allows for none of these.

Peer observation would become mandatory
Every teacher in higher education would be contractually required to spend at least two hours per year in others’ classrooms, or a similar minimum time observing others’ assessment, learning resources, and other things associated with teaching. Preferably ten hours! This is because many, many people agree that they’ve learned many of the most useful and important things about teaching in higher education simply by watching others. One can find things to try to emulate – and equally one can find things to try to avoid oneself.
To me, peer observation does not have to be peer review. The latter is great when both parties want it, but there’s no threat to simple observation – learning from others.

Standard module-evaluation forms would be banned!
When students are asked to fill the same sort of form in time after time, the feedback they give becomes ‘routine’ and of lower value. Also, the forms themselves are feedback forms, not evaluation forms – what we do with the feedback is evaluation. And students suffer ‘death by questionnaire’ – ask them! There are many other – and better – ways of getting feedback from our students on their experience of higher education. There is anecdotal evidence that repeatedly getting students to answer the same old questions about their experience of higher education actually leads to harsher ratings when they meet similar questions yet again, for example in the National Student Survey in the UK, and this distorts the league tables which result from such instruments.

All teaching staff in higher education would be required to be students
For example, each year, everyone should study at least for a few hours in other colleagues’ classes, and have some work marked alongside that of the students. This would help folk to experience what it feels like to be a student, and also allow colleagues to experience others’ excellent (or less-good) teaching for themselves.

Everyone would be required to spend some time teaching students and assessing their work
I don’t believe anyone should be employed in managerial positions (or bureaucratic positions) without knowing what it’s like to work with students, as students change quite rapidly in higher education nowadays. That said, many senior managers already make sure that they keep in contact with the most important aspect of higher education – students themselves.

What would you do?
If you’ve got some short, controversial changes you would make if you were in charge of higher education for a day, and would like me to add them to this page with your name and email address, please email me with the changes and a couple of lines explaining why you would make them.

From Sarah Wall: GMIT, Ireland…
 if I was in charge for a day I would encourage (mandatory seems almost intuitively counterproductive…but maybe not)….. a module in creativity, regardless of disciplines, i.e. across the board.
I would go one step further and request that both “educators” and “students” participate in these modules together….the them and us scenario can be a barrier. Being creative together may help in trust and “comfort” levels for students.
Creativity would involve problem solving, imagination work, the impact of choice, artistic and craft elements, music and song….play and improvisation.
My logic/reasoning is that creativity is absolutely fundamental to life and both inspires and sustains. We are repeatedly told in society (particularly when times are hard) to be innovative in our solutions. If we brainwash our students and ourselves to only absorb other peoples thoughts and deeds and suppress their/our own originality and imagination, then what are we doing to their/our innovation and indeed their/our passion.

 

 From Dr Lindsay Davies, Nottingham Trent:

I would universally ban the term ‘lecturer’ as the title for posts which support learning in higher education. This word serves to reinforce the assumption that teaching is about ‘lecturing’ – that is standing in front of our students and talking at them or, even worse, sermonising or reprimanding them. So let’s call ourselves ‘academics’ or ‘teachers’ or ‘learning consultants’ – anything but ‘lecturer’!

 

More please folk…

Written by Phil

3 April, 2009 at 1:13 pm