Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]
How not to burden first year students and lecturers with multiple assessment tasks and yet still measure desired learning outcomes?
Centre for Academic Development and Flexible Learning
University of Western Sydney, Nepean
The context in which tertiary institutions operate today creates significant pressures on the assessment practices adopted in first year subjects.
We face an era of massive staff redundancies across the tertiary sector with increasing workloads being placed on to remaining academics, in particular those teaching first year students. The student cohort has become increasingly diverse. There is great variability amongst first years in terms of their understanding of the ways of thinking/writing expected at university. As a consequence, the need for first year students to receive meaningful and useful feedback on their learning, has increased.
The dilemma is further compounded by the widely accepted practice of covering large areas of content in first year 'overview' subjects. Associated with this breadth of coverage is the assumed need to assess more knowledge.
There are several assumptions underlying this dilemma including: that all learning must be marked; that first year subjects must introduce students to wide fields of knowledge rather than ways of thinking in the field and that traditional forms of assessment remain appropriate in the current context. Current models of best practice in assessment, such as those presented by Nightingale et al (1996) may not always be appropriate responses to diverse first year student classes and large class sizes.
Ultimately, the resolution to the dilemma will entail devising assessment practices for first year subjects that can lead to quality learning outcomes without academic burnout!
"We used to set and mark a lab report each week on each of the laboratory-based courses. If we did that now we'd be buried. You are talking about 30 hours a week marking on each module. There wouldn't be time to sleep." Lecturer
At the University of Western Sydney, Nepean, the issues now being faced by academics are probably not dissimilar from the issues facing academics elsewhere. We face increasing workloads (as a consequence, in part, of staff redundancies) and ever increasing class sizes, particularly in first year [massification" to use Freeman (1998) term]. Co-incidentally, we are held accountable for achieving quality learning and teaching outcomes (eg in subject and course evaluations) despite reduced opportunities for contact and feedback with our students (Race, 1997).
"Staff are being required to reduce assessment ... retain the same standards (as applied to learning outcomes) and ideally, improve learning through the integration of assessment with learning processes." Lecturer
"I got a lousy mark for the first one but I couldn't see why. There were just ticks and crosses and exclamation marks on it and a mark at the end. We've been given the next assignment and I can see I'm going to get a lousy mark again." Student
"I didn't really know what I was supposed to be doing half the time, but I couldn't ever find the lecturer to ask. They never seem to be in their offices, or when they are they're busy." Student
An important function of assessment is to give students feedback to further develop their learning (formative feedback) as well as to focus learning on the important aspects of the course. As overloaded academics, it seems impossible that we can provide each of our students with useful and meaningful feedback (Race, 1997).
The dilemma facing many academics is how to use assessment in first year subjects to facilitate and clarify learning without over burdening ourselves as academics? Assessment (and particularly over-assessment) is not only a burden for academics, but it is also an issue for our students, as reflected by poor ratings in the "appropriate assessment" item in the National Course Experience Questionnaire.
Some responses to this dilemma
In attempting to deal with this dilemma, an email request from UWS Nepean's Centre for Academic Development and Flexible Learning, was sent to academics across the University asking them to share their strategies for maximising learning whilst limiting formal assessment. The responses were shared in a poster session forum, and are currently being included in an electronic discussion site: 'Let's Talk Teaching'.
Many of the lecturers who responded, commented that the changes to their assessment practices had initially increased their workload. They found they needed time to reflect on : the learning outcomes sought, how to teach their students peer review skills, how they might best clarify their expectations to their students and the content that could meaningfully be covered in a first year subject (with "unstuffing" the curriculum being an important issue (Fox & Radloff, 1997). Nevertheless, most of the lecturers believed that, in the longer term, their approaches to a reduced assessment marking load and increased quality of student learning outcomes.
The strategies to assessment that were shared by the academics (many of which were being used in first year subjects) varied depending on the nature of the learning outcomes being sought in the particular field of study. These strategies included:
- In the School of Cultural Histories and Futures, a Teaching/Learning Team has been established to discuss the nature of the learning outcomes expected from first, second and third year students. Assessment tasks are then designed to determine whether these outcomes are achieved. Given that only a few forms of assessment actually differentiate between students (Gibbs and Jenkins, 1994) and thus are valuable for summative purposes, the remaining tasks are peer and self reviewed (Boud, 1986).
- In the School of Health and Nursing, the approach of scaffolding learning has been adopted in some subjects. Assignments are broken down into stages and students receive feedback on each stage (formative assessment) before submitting the final assignment (for summative assessment) eg before submitting an essay, students may be required to complete a related annotated bibliography and then a critical evaluation of a relevant journal article (C.L.L.W.G., 1998). Peer and self review, of the intermediate stages, using annotated models and criteria review guides are used, in part, to limit the marking load.
- In a number of first year subjects, particularly in the School of Law, front-ending assessment has been adopted (Gibbs, 1992). This involves explaining carefully to students what is wanted in an assignment before they do the assignment. Briefing students, and clarifying assessment criteria at the start, can minimise problems later, reduce students' need to ask for advice later, and make marking quicker and easier.
- Clarifying what is expected in an assignment is achieved by giving detailed guidelines on the structure of the final product (eg instructions on how to prepare and present a moot) and by giving students the assessment criteria (expressed in a way that is meaningful to students). This process has, in part, overcome the problem noted by Professor Carolyn Sappideen in the School of Law, that "we tend to hand the students an assignment and then tell them afterwards what they did wrong" (cited in Scoufis, 1998, p.6).
- In the School of Contemporary Arts and in the School of Cultural Histories and Futures, self and peer review skills are taught from the commencement of first year. As one UWS Nepean lecturer commented: "Students learn so much about their own writing from close review of anothers". It is also often the first time students see and learn from the completed work of a fellow student. Further, the nature of self/peer feedback means that the feedback can more easily be understood (Sparrow, 1997). Again, this approach reduces the marking load on academics and improves the quality of the students' work.
- In the School of Employment Relations, students enrolled in the first year core unit, Australian Employment Relations, are provided with good and poor model essay answers prior to submitting their own work on a different topic. Individually, and then in groups, the students are then asked to assess both models using a criteria sheet. They must reach consensus and record their comments on the specific ways in which criteria have been met or unmet. The tutor then annotates the models on overheads with the assistance of the class. In this way, the tutor is able to clarify his/her expectations.
- Students in first year often lack skills in summarising and critically reviewing what they have read. Marking hundreds of summaries can be extremely exhausting! To avoid this problem, a lecturer in a first year Economics subject requires students in small groups to present meaningful summaries of a topic area in the subject in the form of a poster. The posters are then displayed so that students can learn from each other's work. Students are given a workshop on how to present the poster and guidelines as to how the poster will be assessed. Students responded favorably to the approach, commenting that it was novel, engaging and helped them to understand the subject content.
- First year Accounting is an area where students are required to demonstrate understanding of specific concepts and processes. Given the large number of students, technology has been used to determine in part, whether or not students have acquired the requisite knowledge and skills. Students are progressively given computer generated feedback to computer generated questions. they can alter their answers before submitting them for grading (by computer). In this instance, technology is primarily being used as an aid to learning since students can use the feedback given to achieve full marks.
- Given that reports (eg critical incident reports) and case studies require considerable marking time, several lecturers in the Commerce field have adopted a matrix approach for the submission of answers which dramatically increases the ease of marking (and focuses student learning on the areas considered important by the lecturer). Time is allocated to teaching students (using models) how to use the matrix.
A number of principles of effective assessment emerge from the examples given:
The approaches to assessment that academics volunteered, incorporate many of these principles. The key to effective assessment practices, in the context of large first year classes, is concerned with how we can incorporate these principles into our assessment practices without over burdening ourselves as academics. The sharing of our responses to this dilemma can only improve the quality of the learning outcomes we achieve.
- Clearly define and communicate desired subject aims and learning outcomes and then design appropriate assessment tools to measure and give feedback on their achievement (McInnis et al, 1995).
- Avoid over assessment as overloaded students engage in only surface learning (Ramsden, 1992).
- Where possible, scaffolding the learning task so that the process of acquiring the requisite skills can be self/peer reviewed, and so that students can receive feedback early in the semester on their development of the requisite skills and knowledge.
- Clarify expectations of assessments, using annotated models and/or criteria assessment sheets, so that the quality of student answers (and thus ease of marking) is increased.
- Use technology, where appropriate, to give students feedback on the more "objective" learning outcomes, thus enabling academics to mark assignments requiring more higher-order skills.
- When designing an assignment, consider how it will be marked!
- A more detailed account can be found in Assessing more (learning) but assessing less (often), available from UWS Nepean, CADFL, PO Box 10, Kingswood NSW 2747
Boud, D. (1986). Implementing Student Self-Assessment. Green Guide No. 5. Sydney: HERDSA
C.L.L.W.G. (1998). Modules for preparing students' written assignments. University of Western Sydney, Nepean : Critical Language and Literacy Working Group : Archee, R., James, B., Knight, K., McInnes, D. & Schiller, P. (1998).
de la Harpe, B., Radloff, A. & Parker, L. (1997). Time spent working and studying in the first year: What do students tell us? In Pospisil, R. & Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.73-77. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.
Fox, B. & Radloff, A. (1997). How can we 'unstuff' the curriculum? In Pospisil, R. & Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.118-123. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.
Freeman, M. (1998). An Issues Paper on Law & Business. Second Annual National Teaching Forum, November 1997. Canberra.
Gibbs, G. (1992). Assessing More Students. Oxford Centre for Staff Development. UK: Oxford Brookes University.
Gibbs, G. & Jenkins, A. (1994). Teaching Large Classes in Higher Education. London : Kogan Page.
McInnis, C., James, R. & McNaught, C. (1995). First Year on Campus. A commissioned project of the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.
Nightingale, P., Watson, I., Toohey, S., Ryan, G., Hughes, C. & Magin, D. (1996). Assessing Learning in Universities. NSW: University of NSW Press.
Race, P. (1997). Changing Assessment to Improve Student Learning. England: University of Hull, School of Chemistry.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.
Samuelowicz, K. (1987). Learning problems for overseas students. Higher Education Research and Development, 6(2), 121-133.
Scoufis, M. (1998). Assessing More Learning but Assessing Less Often. University of Western Sydney, Nepean: Centre for Academic Development & Flexible Learning.
Sparrow, H. (1997). Peer assessment as a tool for learning. In Pospisil, R. & Wilcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p.307-311. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February, 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.
|Please cite as: Scoufis, M. (1999). How not to burden first year students and lecturers with multiple assessment tasks and yet still measure desired learning outcomes? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 373-377. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/scoufis.html|
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