If I were in charge…

Ten things I’d love to change
‘It is simply madness to keep doing the same thing, and expect different results’ (Einstein). Assessment and feedback seem to be bound by traditions, many of which just don’t work at all well. We need to do some different things now. I’m sharing this page to get you thinking about some alternatives, and work out what you would change first, and why.
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 in charge of higher education’ for a day, and had a magic wand and could execute and implement some changes from that day forward, here are some things I would do…. (and at workshops I explain why exactly I would do these things).

(A) No assessment method could count more than 20% in 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.

(B) 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.

(C) 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.

(D) Marks would not be allowed to be given to students till they’d had the chance to work them out first on the basis of our feedback on their work!
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 face to face, one to one, and discuss to work out why there was a difference.

(E) Students would be required to self-assess their work before handing it in
One way of doing this is 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.

(F) 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, and is rarely used at all well by students.

(G) Peer observation of teaching 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.

(H) 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 low 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.

(I) 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.

(J) All HODs, and managers in Universities and Colleges 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.

For more information on all these things and more, please download many of the chunks from my published work from this website, especially those from ‘Making Learning Happen’ (2014 edition) and ‘The Lecturer’s Toolkit’ (2015 edition).