Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Using exhibitions to share and assess student learning

Carol Hogan
Language Education, Bunbury Faculty
Edith Cowan University
Assessment tasks in university courses are often close transactions between individual students and teachers. This limits opportunities for students to learn from their peers, or to practise presenting their work to different audiences such as they might encounter in their professional lives. This vignette shows how the use of collaborative exhibitions for assessment can provide these opportunities, while helping students to take responsibility for their learning by setting goals and making decisions for themselves.

The problem

Giving a lecture on assessment to a class of final year Education students is like painting a big target on your forehead. I did this in 1998, using the principles outlined in the Education Department's new Curriculum Framework. I was critical of some assessment practices commonly used in schools. Assessment, I declared, should be "valid, fair, comprehensive, explicit and educative" (EDWA, 1998).

"What about the way we're assessed?" said a student. There were murmurs from the crowd. In my experience educational grievances are always worth exploring, so this moment presented an opportunity. I suggested that we use the EDWA principles (which everyone agreed seemed sound) as an evaluative framework for some typical university assessment tasks. Several students were able to contribute examples then and there from their files, some of them from units in the School of Education, and some from different disciplines. Here is a brief summary of some of our findings:

Valid assessment checks out what it claims to check out. If task is intended to assess your capacity to read critically, then it shouldn't test rote memory. If it's intended to assess your application of theory, it shouldn't place too much weight on your spelling. A number of students felt that virtually all university tasks were assessments of writing ability, and though most thought academic writing was an important skill, they agreed that it was certainly possible for one student to "know their stuff" but do poorly, while another might "bluff their way through" on style alone. Several students located themselves in one or other of these categories.

Comprehensive assessment attempts a profile rather than a snapshot. It sets out to discover the pattern of a student's strengths, weaknesses and learning strategies by sampling work over a period of time and on different tasks. It deliberately uses a range of techniques, each of which will provide a different perspective on what has been learned. The students felt that university courses were particularly narrow in terms of the attributes that were valued, and that assessment focused on these almost exclusively. One young woman pointed out that "teachers need a lot of qualities besides good memories and the ability to write essays."

Explicit assessment shares the criteria for successful performance with those who are being assessed. Ideally, those assessed should have a role in developing and negotiating these criteria so that there is some sense of shared meaning amongst participants. Students' experiences varied considerably on this one. In many cases the criteria were assumed, and a major part of the student role was to "sus them out". Others described tasks for which the criteria seemed to slip or shift at the whim of tutors. Others again felt constrained by excessive direction and overly explicit criteria that didn't allow for innovation or creative thinking.

Educative assessment fosters learning, not just through the usual summative feedback mechanisms, but in and through the process of assessment itself. This was the principle that generated most discussion and debate. There was general agreement that "you learned from doing assignments" - that reading and writing could foster deep engagement with an issue or a field of enquiry. However, a number of students felt that their most powerful learning experiences involved interaction with others; shared reflection and discussion with peers, tutors and teachers, and that standard assessment tasks did not really foster this kind of learning. Typical assignments were closed transactions between individual students and tutors, which limited opportunities for learning from one another. On many occasions I have read wonderful student papers and regretted that I was the only person who would have the benefit of learning from their work.

We touched also on the question of how assignment work educated: it encouraged processes of reflection, synthesis and composition, but the students felt that there were important processes that were not supported, such as collaboration and the communication of ideas to different audiences. And perhaps the assessment process could be more educative still if students had the responsibility of deciding how they would go about demonstrating what they had learned, rather than simply meeting requirements in a set form.

We present our pre-service teachers with plenty of evidence that children learn most effectively when they have some responsibility for setting their own learning goals and negotiating the way in which these might be reached. What would happen if this principle were applied in the context of teacher education?

Rethinking the task

I decided to try it out on a small scale, with two groups of about thirty students undertaking a fairly straightforward assignment task. This section of the course had been about the reading process and reading comprehension. They had considered a range of theories of reading, had looked at some current research and curriculum materials. They had participated in tutorial discussions around perennial debates such as the role of phonic knowledge in reading and reading pedagogy, and had undertaken some structured school experiences reading shared books with small groups of children. Their assignment would normally be one that invited them to apply their theoretical knowledge to a practical teaching task, such as planning a series of reading lessons. This was not a bad task in itself, but I wanted to see if it could be made more "valid, fair, explicit, comprehensive and educative" and how my students would respond to the challenge.

Developing an idea from the Essential Schools Project in the United States (Cushman, 1994), I decided that a Learning Exhibition might provide a vehicle for the sorts of improvements I was seeking to make. Spencer and Angus (1998, 658) point out that student exhibitions involve complex cognitive skills as they must "collaboratively synthesize and evaluate information, and effectively communicate their ideas to others." Our exhibition task took shape as follows:

Literacy lessons: Exhibition

I invited a teacher and a deputy principal to join me on a panel to assess the students' exhibitions, as part of our Faculty's routine practice of keeping our programs open to the profession and the community. I felt that this would also help to develop the students' sense of audience; that they needed to be able to communicate their ideas effectively to others who knew a lot about classrooms and teaching, but had not necessarily done the same background reading.

In small groups the students discussed and listed the criteria that they felt would constitute a good exhibition. We shared and categorised these, developing them finally as the following list:

I was profoundly impressed with both the quality and quantity of work the students put into preparing for their exhibition. Perhaps it was simply more "visible" work than that involved in private assignment writing, but their feedback indicated that the added features of collaboration and a peer/professional audience were highly motivating. The exhibition day was quite an event, with students presenting a very varied and imaginative range of teaching ideas and resources, generally well supported by their reading and research. The exhibition was open to other students and staff on campus, though naturally the other teacher education students were the ones who showed most interest.

Listed below are some of the comments from student exhibitors about what they had gained from the experience:

This was all very gratifying and convinced me firstly, that the students had understood the point of the exercise and secondly, that it had succeeded in producing an "educative" assessment experience. There were some negatives, however, most of which had to do with the practical logistics of the day. Issues of time, space and access to resources were raised, and some useful suggestions were offered for improving the process. All participants, including the guest examiners felt that it was worth doing again, so several of my units in 1999 will include New Improved Exhibitions as part of the assessment profile.

As I'm sure you're aware, this is a fairly tame instance of reform. The exhibition I designed fits comfortably within existing course and university guidelines, and really offers the students relatively limited choice and responsibility. What would happen, I wonder, if I were to hand over control in a more radical way? Could I simply say to my second year class, "find an effective way of showing me what you've learnt about children's language development"? Would I be comfortable with videos, taped examples and commentaries, dramatic performances? (yes) ... and what about cartoons, models, song lyrics? (well...) I would be very interested to hear the views and experiences of other university teachers.

References

Cushman, K. (1994). Less is More: The Secret of Being Essential. Horace (The Coalition of Essential Schools), 11(2).

Education Department of Western Australia (1998). Curriculum Framework for Kindergarten to Year 12 Education in Western Australia. Curriculum Council.

Spencer, B and Angus, K. (1998). Demonstrating Knowledge: The Use of Presentations in the College Classroom. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 41 (8).

Please cite as: Hogan, C. (1999). Using exhibitions to share and assess student learning. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 158-161. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/hogan-ca.html


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