I attended the SEDA Spring Conference on Teaching Learning and Assessment, which was held in Edinburgh on 12-13 May.
It was a great conference, as expected, and this is my account of the two days.
Ian’s keynote was focussed on the challenges in implementing good practice in assessment and feedback. His slides were imbued with great references to work done in the field and, hopefully, they will be online soon.
- Ian highlighted the importance of tracking students online, so that educators can evaluate what works and what doesn’t (Wayne Smutz, 2013).
- Talking about online learning, Ian stated that students want access to information online 24/7, and all in one place. Thus, designing online content should always be done with students in mind.
- Ian also highlighted the role of assessment to develop employability skills and what employers want out of graduates. I have some more reservations about this topic, as I still believe that universities should take what employers want with a pinch of salt. Our role is delivering academic skills, the ability to learn, not the learning of specific skills.
- I really liked Ian’s idea that assessment should be both ‘economically efficient’ as well as ‘academically efficient’. This is a very pragmatic and effective idea: we need to make it good, but also feasible.
- The big problem with assessment is that it usually fails to meet students’ expectations, and it can drive to wrong behaviour. A few examples of this are driven by:
- The symbolic use of marking (do we really need a 100 points scale? What does it mean to the students?) Students tend to have a simpler marking rubric in their mind: “I did well, I did good, I did ok, I did awful”. But often this scale is misaligned with the mark they get.
- Structured assessments, full of sub-parts, and sub-marks that average each other do not give a clear picture of where students needs improvement, and just drives a strategic behaviour based on compensation and hitting desired threshold, stripping the complexity of the learning process. (Grades can conceal actual performance).
- We should have in mind that we are assessing the work, not the person. We should convey this feeling to the student as much as we can.
- Sometimes the needs of good assessment design and good marking clash with institutional constraints based on turnaround time: a typical issue within a constructive alignment perspective.
- Ian said that feedback is not effective if there is no evidence of its consequences. Another powerful concept. We often talk about relating assessment with learning outcomes, but do our students know what the learning outcomes are? (Susanne Orr). A way to encompass this problem is to have students rewriting learning outcomes in their own words to contextualise them, in partnership with staff.
- Ian suggests that we should use a ‘graded learning profile’, a form of learning portfolio with minimal aggregation of marks and a clear understanding of the skills attained on the student’s side.
- Myth busting: it is not true that students will work to meet minimum requirements, if the assessment process if constructively aligned.
There is much more I could write about this great keynote, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Sally (@ProfSallyBrown) and Kay explored the use of exemplars to support students in developing assessment literacy. Their key message was that the use of pre-emptive formative assessment can be crucial in the development of unconscious and tacit knowledge about the assessment process. They find that the ‘failing exemplar’ (and example of poor quality work) was even more helpful than good quality one in supporting students’ assessment literacy. My colleague Phil Long emphasized that good assessment literacy should include: ideas, connections, and extensions, and that we should guide students through these stages. The slides of Sally and Kay are available here. They have also provided a useful assessment literacy bibliography.
Deena (@DeenaI) challenged us to think about the provocative idea of having students to design their own assessment. Something that belongs the Learning Contract Design literature.
Deena based her talk on the idea that we can harness self-authorship (Baxter-Magolda) in assessment and use intrinsic motivation in delivering good work as a much more powerful driver than extrinsic motivators. According to the principles of self-authorship, student choose and write the criteria for assessment and the learning outcomes the assessment is going to address.
Mighty Laura (@laura_ritchie) emphasized the importance of student agency in assessment design and delivery. We need to help our students to question the mode according to which they perform tasks, and of course we need to help them to understand the tasks, acquire the necessary skills and believe in themselves. (How could self-efficacy not come up when Laura is in the room?) In Laura’s talk, assessment is seen as a ‘criterion validated reflection’: what a beautiful definition! Laura asked us to define what an essay is, and she shared her view that desired features of an essay should be: excellence, reflection, creativity, and learning. I fear creativity is the hardest one to harness, but it is also true that this feature is the most rewarding to discover in our students’ work. Laura has already written a great blog account of her session, well worthy a read.
Linda presented the results of her research on how essay feedback to students relates to the mark awarded. Laura introduced us to Brown and Glover’s classification of feedback comments, ranking comments motivationally (positive, negative, neutral) and practically (through indication, correction, and explanation). Laura then presented her work showing the correlation between marks and proportion of positive and negative comments. This is fascinating research, which probably needs to be made a little more robust with larger sample sizes, and more structure in the empirical analysis.
A large team of researchers (@y1feedback) from Ireland talked us through the material generated by a project aimed at evaluating different approaches to Technology Enhanced Learning approaches to address the needs of First Year students. The First Year focus harnesses the research to the quest for ways to support transitions through TEL. Can digital technologies open ways to enhance feedback for First Year students? The researchers highlight that the feedback experience of first year students is often inconsistent. They advocate that good feedback needs to both formal and informal, be feed-forward oriented, and be based on a dialogue. They compiled a wide range of case-studies and they observed that the challenges emerging from their surveys of TEL approaches are: (i) truly dialogic feedback is hard to implement, (ii) the potential of technologies is sometimes high to realise, and (iii) the problem of competing priority in feedback deliver is always present. Their website is full of great resources. I think the next stage of their project should consist of distilling what works better and what doesn’t, creating a menu from which teachers can choose the pedagogies and tools more suited to their needs.
This was the end of the first day.
Margaret Price has a similar experience to mine (even though she is much more established than me, of course). She comes from the Business disciplines, but she migrated her research into education and pedagogy. Margaret started her keynote talk on the premise that feedback does not seem to have much of an effect.
- The discourse on assessment seems rather unsophisticated and superficial to her: issues with fairness, cheating, and grade inflation, are always on the agenda, but these are not the core issues.
- Margaret touched a little on the anonymity as she remarked this was not even much of a debated issue. I must agree with her, it has always been imposed on me…and I hate it!
- She digs deeper when she said that there is a problem of collusion between staff and students to keep assessment and feedback as they are. More traditional forms of assessment tend to be taken as granted.
- Margaret remarked that we need to take a programme approach to feedback, not a piecemeal approach. This recalls our opening keynote by Ian Pirie. It led me to think that the constructive alignment theory can show us that sometimes learning and teaching practices are perfectly aligned…but on the wrong path!
- In line with the presentation on exemplars, we were challenged to reflect on the fact that assessment criteria are assumed to be explicit, but they are still imbued with tacit knowledge that can only be shared by exposure and experience.
- Marking consistency is another issue: there is huge mark variation, especially in essays. Phil Race tweeted that essays are good for giving feedback, but we should not mark them.
- What is the impact of feedback? What would generate good impact? Possible answers are: student engagement, understanding issues, experiencing a relational approach, and affecting self-efficacy.
- What makes good feedback ‘good’ then? Margaret suggests using student-researchers to find out. She claims that we have 3 success factors: (i) technical (presentation), (ii) particularity (personal and engaged feedback), and (iii) recognition of student effort (including the level of detail in feedback).
- In terms of context-based criteria for good feedback, we can account for: (i) assessment design, (ii) pre-conditions, and (iii) marker predictability. (Timing is not perceived as a big issue).
- In terms of expectations, we need to account for: (i) mark expectations, (ii) student epistemology, resilience, and beliefs.
Margaret concluded her talk suggesting that there is unexploited scope for assessment and feedback in the area of student development. This is quite a broad concepts, and I will need to think it over.
This presentation discussed the role of using marking rubrics in TurninUK. It was interesting to hear the pros and the cons of using TurnitinUK. It seems that no platform is perfect. Features that caught my attention:
- Rubrics can help students to self-assess.
- TurnitinUK links feedback comments to learning outcomes.
- However, TurnitinUK doesn’t allow to have different rubrics on the same website. Need to set a different one for each rubric.
- An advantage of Blackboard is the ability of writing in the rubric itself to customise it.
This presentation highlighted the problem of MOOC attrition rates: low engagement and patriotic bias in peer-marking (peers from similar background/countries tend to mark each other higher).
- Coursera addresses the problem using a “calibrated peer-assessment” system.
- MOOCs also have an element of self-assessment (after receiving the peer-assessment).
Self-assessment is still underrated in literature. However, peer-assessment is still affected by a lot of attrition.
- A controversial question is: should ‘effort’ be included in the marking rubric? In my opinion this can be done only by specifying the evaluation criteria for this.
Two presentations (and keynote) of the day were based on the development of the TESTA programme. This is a project that articulates across auditis, experience questionnaire, focus groups, case studies, workshops, and a range of resources designed programmatic review of assessment and feedback practices. Highlights from these talks are the following:
- The shift in perspective should lead to move: (i) from “my module” to “our programme”, (ii) from teacher to student-centred, (iii) from NSS to enhancement.
- In terms of NSS, key concepts were: knee-jerk, and coping with poor performance through a spit and polish approach.
- In terms of curriculum design, it was emphasized that content and knowledge are dominant, but there is little training on curriculum design.
- TESTA highlighted that the tendency is using misguided assumptions to interventions in teaching and learning: the ‘academic’ approach of metrics, analysis of data. This needs more attention (and partnership with the students).
- I just observed that receiving feedback is an emotional process and we should acknowledge that.
- The issue of staff workload in marking was an important one. An interesting piece of feedback from staff: “Using online marking gave me back my Christmas holidays”.
- Reducing staff workload is a good incentive to buy staff into innovation, but sometimes staff does not see the advantage of technology.
- It was advocated that reducing summative assessment and increasing formative assessment can reduce workload, but I would disagree (unless we conduct one worse than the other).
That is all for now!
I attended my first SEDA conference, and I loved every minute of it. The climate was so friendly, and everybody made me feel very welcome. The presentations were really professional and stimulating: I genuinely came back home with many ideas to reflect on.
We kicked off with a keynote by Keith Smyth (@smythkrs) on “Practice, Praxis, Place”. Keith highlighted the following points and questions:
- educational development (ED) is under scrutiny: we need to diversify and evidence how we conduct it.
- Where is the Scholarship of ED located in our institutions? How to make it explicit?
- It would be nice to see ED as activism in HE? A politically active ED community.
- How to evidence CPD? How to take a longitudinal approach to its evaluation?
- Good reference: John Cowan: on Becoming an Innovative University Teacher.
I then gave my own talk on Peer Instruction Unveiled (link to slides) talking about active learning and ways to measure its impact. I was pleased as the message seemed to go across loud and clear. I am a quant. guy, and metrics are not enjoying a good press these days due to the advent of TEF. Still, good metrics are possible and, even if not the panacea, they can help us getting insights in what our students learn, and how. This is what I tried to show in my presentation. It was important to see that ethical consideration also raised interest. Conducting in-depth empirical analysis on our student learning implies making sure that we do so ethically. It was suggested that I allow for facilitators to walk around the room during peer-instruction session to collect evidence on how students develop their discussions: a very interesting way to develop my research on active learning.
I was then off to Julie Hall’s (@julieh8) talk on “Using Marx to Discuss Educational Development”. This was very refreshing:
- Julie noted that the debate in ED feels quite “neutral” nowdays, hence not quite a debate at all. There is little evidence on critical views about ED. Some colleagues brought back memories of the ‘golden age’ when a debate was present.
- I remarked that I wish I could have at least these memories. As I moved to the UK after all this was already gone, I have no re-collection of knowledge of what the world could be. I only know one model of the world, and for that reason I find it even harder to imagine how things could be different. What was the climate in HE before marketization?
- Julie remarked that, according to Marx, the parameters necessary to qualify ED debate would be: the historical context of the institution and its evolution, the tension and imbalance of power between teachers and students, and the methodologies adopted to promote ED and scholarship.
- Julie went on claiming that there is tension between either an emancipatory or a domesticating role of ED. We live in the illusion of being a-political, which led us to tacitly support dominant ideologies.
Next for me was a talk by Amanda Platt on “Exploring the Impact of L&T Cultures in Engagement with SoTL”. Amanda talked about her investigation conducted on this topic. I think that the most important take-away from her talk is that academic leadership is pivotal in developing academic staff and establishing a SoTL culture.
And then was time for Jennie Winter, talking about her project of using an art gallery to engage HE students across different disciplines. I need to check her previous project on “Public Arts as Extra Curricular Learning (2013, University of Plymouth). It was interesting how Jennie reported that students do not feel welcome in art gallery spaces, whereas these can be promoted as excellent multidisciplinary spaces. I would love to experiment with these ideas. The use of visual arts and emotions generated by art work can be a great device to engage all students and go across cultures. (Internationalisation anybody?).
The second keynote of the conference was by Dilly Fung on “Strength-based Scholarship”.
- Dilly highlighted the importance of taking a holistic view of the 4 scholarship pillars established by Boyer (1990).
- I want to read Dilly’s work: Fung and Gordon (2015), HEA study on SoTL. She emphasizes that she prefer the word “education”, rather than “learning and teaching”. I definitely agree.
- Dilly went a bit philosophical (oh boy, I love it!) She told us about “bildung”: the feeling of ‘becoming’ and ‘self-formation’ that can emerge though authentic dialogue. A process that is simultaneously individual and collective.
- Open mindness and open-horizons are essential for Dilly. To promote good education we need to choose which kind of education we want to promote. We need to liberate the curriculum and liberate ourselves. Identify who has put boundaries around ourselves and our work. Some great ideas here, with just one objection: what are we allowed to do within our own institutional set-up?
- I need to check the “Connected Curriculum Framework” at UCL.
- Interestingly, Dilly does not like the idea of ‘facilitator’. She prefers the idea of teachers and communicants in a complicated conversation (Communicating Scholarship, Pinar (2012)).
- Dilly concludes that Strength-based Scholarship should be based on institutions promoting on the basis of ‘strength’, not on box ticking exercises.
Clare Kell and John Sweet presented on “Exploring Non-verbal Communication in Learning Interaction”. This was a bit far from my field of investigation, but it was an interesting session to reflect on the learning that can be visualized through behavioural vignettes. This is a useful tool for those who cannot film or record confidential session, yet want to make an account of the interaction of participants. I was interested in the concept of “teaching as choreography”, which is researched by a colleague at the University of Verona
Sally Brown, always accompanied by mighty Phil Race, facilitated a workshop on how to promote evidence-based research in learning and teaching: a core aspect of SoTL. This was good fun, and it gave me chance to reflect on how much I learnt about this topic: actually quite a fair deal! I felt rather chuffed myself, and I was pleased that I could pass something on to my colleagues, as well as listening to new ideas. Sally, needless to say, is a great facilitator and she cannot but be putting a smile on your face whenever you are around her. Sally and Phil are always a great source of inspiration for me. This is not just about what they say, but the way they do it, and the way they share resources with us. I hope I will be able to follow their examples all the way through my career.
For the final keynote, Gina Wisker presented on “Risk and Agency in SoTL”. The TEF came straight on the agenda, and some considerations with it:
- Personally, I think that we are missing out by leaving the students out of this debate. What do they think? Do they agree with what is going on?
- The University of Brighton (where Gina comes from) had a project whereby students defined what is teaching excellence for them. I would like to see more of this!
- It was remarked that there is a document produced collegially by the members of the Association of National Teaching Fellows, which is downloadable from Sally Brown’s website.
- Sally also remarked that the categories mentioned in the UKPSF are not aligned with the criteria set for the TEF: a paradox!
All in all my favourite point from Gina’s presentation was the fact that we need to create a sense of community and engage colleagues beyond jargon and methodological entrenchment. I would love to see more of this!
This concludes my account, but I have still a few notes about a really funny discussion had in the evening during our conference meal. (I met some really nice colleagues, as I mentioned). So TEF is coming, and everybody seems to hate it, which I still struggle to make sense of. What is happening? Well, we need to carry on debating on what can be good measures of teaching excellence. But measure for measure, and metric for metric, how about creating our own ‘Alternative REF’. We launched a #altTEF twitter hashtag, and I storified some of the tweets. Wanna join in an contribute?
Thank you SEDA colleagues: excellent conference, good presentations, good debates, good feedback to my talk, which I can put to good use. You will see back again!
This year I am in charge of delivering Support Sessions for the module I teach and convey (Introductory Economics). Support Sessions are non-compulsory ‘open’ office hours targeting students who feel that they are falling behind with the material. The sessions are timetabled and scheduled to take place in teaching venues. Everybody is welcome to attend and ask for clarifications on either the theory taught in Lectures, or the problems assigned in Seminars and Workshops. The set-up is clear, attendance to these sessions is quite good, but…
But, as usual, students are very reluctant to ask questions. At the beginning of every session I would switch the projector on, bring with me notes about everything covered in recent theoretical or applied teaching moments, and ask the fatidic question: “What would you like me to cover today?” Punctually, I would be met by silence and perplexity, if not embarrassment.
Argh, argh, Argh! What to do? Should I start picking on material that I think is difficult? Deliver a mini-lecture that covers core points? Dismiss the class in a huff telling students to come back next week with questions?
Nah, none of the above. I just have to accept the fact that my students do not feel comfortable enough to speak up in public and admit, in front of everybody, that they are experiencing difficulties with any part of the material taught. After all, would I be prepared to do the same? Would I walk in a class and tell the teacher, with all my peers listening to me, “I did not understand this”?
Well, I found the solutions to all my problems and I am a very happy lecturer now. I attended a very powerful workshop by Prof Phil Race at the Anglia Ruskin Assessment Fiesta a few weeks ago, and I got an excellent idea: Post-it!
Yes, that is right, Post-it is the way!
At the beginning of each session I distribute a sticky yellow Post-It slip to each student in the venue, and I ask them to write down what they would like me to cover in the Support Session, then I circulate 1 or 2 A4 sized blank sheets. Students stick all the Post-It slips on the A4 sheets. I like that they can see what other students have written: very often the same questions repeat over and over. Once the sheets are back with me, I quickly sort them on my desk. This allows me to address student queries in order, and build the session in a clear and organised way. Once the plan of action is in front of me, I start covering the issues raised, one by one, until completion. The additional benefit of this approach is that, once students see that I am addressing their specific concern, they gain confidence to raise their hands and ask for further clarifications on the points they are interested in.
At the beginning of each session I am flooded with Post-It notes now. At the end of the session students have gathered the information they needed, and we all live happy thereafter. Well…until the next Support Session!
Last Saturday I came to campus (as usual) to catch up with some work and I found myself immersed in our students’ “Pimp my Barrow” end-of-exam-period celebration. As new comer, I was yet to get acquainted with this event, but I discovered it even has a Wikipedia entry! Groups of students decide on a theme, design and create their fancy dresses as well as make additions to their barrow around their theme. They race from Norwich city centre to UEA, where a big party explodes. After a few hours of banter, they storm back in town to collect money for charity and to continue on with the celebrations.
While standing on the balcony overlooking the campus square going insane, I was amazed by the ingenuity of our students, the originality of their costumes, and the wit of some of their ideas. At some point I caught myself shaking my head and thinking (perhaps with a little envy for the fun they were having) that if ever our students applied the same craft, originality, independence and thinking in their studies our job would be so much easier and fun. I must admit, I felt immediately ashamed of that thought…because what came to my mind next is that very often we are the ones to blame. If our students can do extraordinary things with a carton box, a little face paint, and some old charity-shop old clothes, can you imagine what they could do with the right learning tools, academic knowledge, and thinking freedom? if they are so great at pimping their barrows, we should be equally great at pimping our teaching.