Transformational Assessment? I have nothing to lose but my cynicism
A personal view of the Partnership in Assessment and Feedback event in Edinburgh, April 2014.
I hadn’t expected it to be fun. But it was, thanks to a range of interesting speakers and, more importantly, a range of participants willing to engage with the issues being raised and discuss how some of these ideas might be translated into action. The excellent venue and catering helped too.
The Institute for Academic Development, which co-hosted this event, plans to make a record of it available through their website, so this post focuses on my personal take-away moments.
Professor Kay Sambell from Northumbria University started the day with a thought-provoking overview of recent work at her own and other UK Universities, aiming to develop student engagement with their assessment and in particular to develop assessment literacy. As I write this, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy has been in my mind, so I was musing on digital literacy and now assessment literacy as 21st century manifestations of the cultural and social phenomena explored in that seminal work.
Kay’s discussion of an exemplar marking exercise, where student ranking for papers was found to be almost the opposite of staff, illustrated perfectly the need to consider how students develop assessment literacy, and the need to help students stay focused on key tasks and qualities for evaluation. Designing tasks which will help students to become more assessment-literate is challenging, but the process itself helps staff to engage each other in useful discussion. This is essential if assessment is truly to be transformed, because authentic feedback – which provides students with impetus and direction to change – also changes the tutor’s role. So there is also significant staff development and support work to be done in helping staff achieve assessment literacy, especially in an online context. And of course to help staff develop skills and models for changing and managing that tutor-student relationship appropriately.
As Kay described a series of pilot activities with students, and their reactions to them, it became clear that these approaches have the power to truly transform student – and staff – understanding of the assessment process. What I especially appreciated was the practicality of it all, grounded in suggestions and exercises which could be adapted and applied in different contexts. My favourite (student) quote from that part of the day: “Normal assessments have no audience.”
In spite of the many excellent presentations in the afternoon, taking us on a high-speed gallop through current JISC projects and some University of Edinburgh initiatives, the highlight of my day was the Viewpoints activity.
This was introduced by Alan Masson. Although now working for Blackboard.com, he drew on work in his previous post at the University of Ulster on the Viewpoints Project to outline the use of the Viewpoints cards and how they should be used by us. Each table had a challenge – ours was to design a programme – from scratch – to engage students in their own assessments.
The discussion around the task – in which 90 minutes just sped by – was fascinating. I was fortunate in being in a group which included two very recent graduates and a number of very experienced teaching staff from a number of disciplines. This generated (at least for me) some suggestions and perspectives I would never have reached on my own. One of the most interesting reflections, at the end of the process, was that although we had focused on a specific example, to stay on task, the resulting planning chart could usefully have applied to any discipline, and probably any level of programme.
The process of producing our plan was of course more valuable than the plan itself. So I find myself reflecting that an exercise like this could be invaluable as part of a programme planning process, especially if it included all parts of the programme team including administrative staff and technical support staff. If time could be made to iterate the process, former students on the course could also be included.
So, my big take-away from the day: if we are serious about transforming assessment, and believe that designing assessment FOR learning is possible and desirable, we need to plan it in from the ground up, as a fundamental tenet of the programme design. Much can be done with individual courses but the issues which arise when there is no coordination across the piece may be hard to overcome, and inconsistent adoption may be to the detriment of our students. And, the best way to do this is to get all the people who should have input into the process together, and brainstorm in this structured and open way.
I envisage an exercise like this becoming a really useful, and widely accepted, part of team formation for any new course or programme.
Links and resources
- IAD Assessment information
- Transforming Assessment
- REAP Programme
- Viewpoints pages
- HEA Assessment links