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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [Refereed papers ]
Engaging the student writer in university assessment: The Response

Alison Jaquet
English and Cultural Studies
The University of Western Australia

This paper will evaluate the Response form of assessment, which has been used in the Discipline of English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia for the past two years. The Response is a form of essay or extended prose that aims to stimulate self reflexivity and originality by encouraging students to incorporate more personal responses to texts in their writing. In this research the Response was evaluated in terms of whether it was aligned with the unit learning outcomes. The perceived value of the Response in comparison to other forms of assessment was also evaluated. Sixty-six students completed a short questionnaire. In addition, two optional short answer questions attempted to elicit personal comments about the Response. Teaching staff were also informally surveyed for their impressions of the Response. In general, students viewed the Response form of assessment favourably. Further analysis of the student data revealed that even those who had reservations about the Response, nevertheless acknowledged its benefits in stimulating ideas and critical thinking. Tutors reported mixed feelings about the value of the Response, but benefits of the form were implicit in their responses. Suggestions for how to minimise both student and teacher concerns about the Response include increased discussion of assessment in central forums such as lectures. Overall, the findings suggest that the Response facilitates increased student engagement with assessment, with their tutors and peers.


Assessment is a fundamental component of the teaching and learning process, presenting challenges for both students and teachers alike. Moreover, effective assessment strategies play an integral role in facilitating student engagement with new knowledge. There is considerable scholarship directed at improving the quality of student learning through assessment (Biggs, 2003; Brown & Knight, 1994; Freeman & Lewis, 1998). In these studies, assessment models such as the essay are compared to the multiple-choice exam, the report or other modes of assessment, with discipline-specific conclusions often drawn. Interestingly, there is as much potential for variation within each model of assessment, as between them. In the past decade, assessment has been the subject of important pedagogical research and consequently, new models have been generated. In this vein, Light and Cox (2001) argue that:

There are no ultimate prescriptions or rules for the practice of assessing students in higher education. It is, rather, a developing 'genre' of the language of learning and teaching [...] it is a multifaceted and multidimensional phenomenon positioned at the heart of teaching and its scope for innovation and the improvement of student learning should not be underestimated (p. 192).
However, while assessment has been characterised as a 'developing genre' in recent years, the potential for innovation from within the essay model remains largely untapped. The scope of this paper is limited to a consideration of the essay model. In his recent article, "The end of the essay?" Richard Andrews (2003) concludes that the 'default genre' of the essay needs to be adapted in order to be kept relevant in the university sector (p. 23). In this paper, I will evaluate a unique adaptation of the essay form: the Response, which has been used in the Discipline of English and Cultural Studies (ECS) at The University of Western Australia (UWA) for the past two years. The Response aims to stimulate self-reflexivity and originality by encouraging students to incorporate more personal responses to texts in their writing and to situate their knowledge. My research is the first to evaluate the Response-style of assessment, and I will address the experiences of both students and teaching staff in relation to this model. This paper aims to tease out the implications of the Response in relation to teaching, learning outcomes and the facilitation of student engagement with assessment.

The Response

Essays form the foundation of the assessment structure in ECS. The Response was created in 2004, in reaction to the change from 8-point to 6-point units. As part of this transition, there was a related necessity to decrease the content of units offered, including lowering the demands of assessment. At a basic level, the Response works to reduce the overall word limit of a standard essay, in its current definition, as a short piece of extended prose. Since its inception, the Response has been used in several second and third-year and honours units. It is designed as a first, and hence formative assessment.

The current definition of the Response is that it is a 1500 word piece of writing that maintains the formal demands of an essay, while encouraging the writer to be reflective as well as critical. The Response requires the student to devise his/her own topic, based on his/her personal interests from studying the unit. There are extensive guidelines and descriptions of the criteria provided as part of the assignment, including a list of demonstrated outcomes on which the Response will be assessed (See Appendix 1). The option, for students to devise their own essay question, is not unique to the Response and is something that is offered in other ECS units. However, generally this option exists only as an alternative to a set of prescribed questions. Hence, ordinarily, few students opt to design their own individual topic and the Response circumvents this tendency by avoiding any prescriptive or set questions.

The Response explicitly stresses the importance of first-person writing and promotes exploration and creativity in the writing process. The central idea is that a student formulates and records his/her own ideas of the primary text and is then encouraged to address these ideas in relation to secondary critical work. Further research is encouraged, but the focus in the exercise is on one secondary criticism only, in order for the student to engage thoroughly with the ideas and to integrate other writers' works into his/her own perspective. The process of thinking and writing that the Response requires, in conjunction with the feedback from teachers, is aimed to provide a platform for approaching an extended research essay later in the unit.

In 2006, the Response comprised the first assignment in Romanticism and Revolution, a unit in which I was a member of the teaching staff.

Surveying staff and students

My decision to survey both students and teachers was underpinned by an holistic approach to teaching and learning. As David Boud (1995) asserts:
We need to look at the impact of the total package of learning and assessment and not simply at fragments of assessment. This means that we must inevitably look at the profile of assessment as students see it, from the point of view of the course, the total experience of the whole (p. 43).
Hence, a student survey was devised and implemented to elicit impressions of student approaches to, and experiences of the Response. In addition, interviews were conducted with teaching staff from units that had incorporated the Response over the past 2 years, to survey their impressions of the assessment. Questions were designed, firstly, to determine whether learning outcomes were aligned with the assessment model. Secondly, I sought to gauge student engagement with this particular style of assessment. This paper will first address the student perspectives of the Response and will subsequently address the perceptions of their teachers.

The student survey

The second and third-year students of Romanticism and Revolution were surveyed and sixty-six completed surveys were received, comprising seventy-five percent of the enrolled students.

Section one

In the first section of the survey, the students were asked specific questions about their experience of writing the Response. A five-point Likert scale was used. The students registered their responses as either Strongly Agree (5), Agree (4), Neutral (3), Disagree (2) or Strongly Disagree (1). The questions were designed to mirror the tone of statements that students would be familiar with from the regular Student Perceptions of Teaching (SPOT) surveys used throughout the university. The questions were as follows:
  1. Preparing the Response is motivating me to be reflective about the way in which I write.
  2. Planning and writing the Response is stimulating my own ideas and opinions.
  3. Clear and specific instructions for completing the Response have been provided.
  4. I believe that the Response is a useful style of assessment for this unit.
  5. The Response compares favourably to other forms of assessment I have encountered in ECS.
The mean responses to each question in Section One of the survey are presented in Table 1. In general most students were in agreement with all questions, indicating a trend to view the Response favourably. On average, students agreed that the Response stimulated their own ideas and opinions. Slightly less agreement was registered in regard to the way in which the Response motivated students to reflect on their writing, but the mean still suggests a trend toward agreement. Registering closer to neutral, were the questions about the Response's usefulness in this unit, and also about whether adequate instructions had been provided to complete the assignment.

Table 1: Number of participants, means and scale range utilised for each question

QuestionnMeanScale range utilised
1Reflective about writing663.772-5
2Stimulates own ideas664.062-5
3Clear instructions663.622-5
4Useful for the unit653.582-5
5Favourable to other assessments653.351-5

Question 5 received a mean rating closest to neutral, which suggests that the Response was not necessarily considered more favourably than other assessment models that the students had experienced in ECS, including the more traditional essay form.

Section two

In the second section of the survey, the students were asked for their written opinions on what they had found most useful about the Response and also, their suggestions for its future improvement. These elicited very important insights into student engagement with the Response as a form of assessment.

Much of the written feedback was positive, elaborating on the benefits of reflective writing exercises. Two students outlined the usefulness of the Response in the following ways:

It allows students to have more involvement in their learning process as they are encouraged to question what they read, rather than absorb it as fact.

It is encouraging me to be more confident about my own opinions and ideas towards texts, but also to engage with the opinions and ideas of other writers.

These comments indicate that critical thinking is an outcome of the Response for these two students. In the unit, Romanticism and Revolution, the statement of learning outcomes includes the following outcome:
the ability to engage with secondary critical material by analysing the argument, gaps, sense of issues, contribution to the field and integrating that material where appropriate into individually argued responses (Romanticism and Revolution 2273, Unit Guide).
Hence, student engagement is expressed here as a fundamental outcome of this unit. Moreover, the integration of new knowledge into each student's existing framework of understanding is reflected as an integral part of the learning process. This is extremely important when we consider that Romanticism and Revolution explores the writings and politics of the Romantic period, with students studying some of the more canonical writers in literary history: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats among others. Hence, the Response provides a specific forum to facilitate student engagement with these texts. In this way, a personal response to these works assists to situate the writer in response to the often-overwhelming and authoritative scholarship and to provide a unique method to promote student engagement

Lavelle and Zuercher (2001) posit that more engaging assessment can be achieved by creating tasks that are "both academic as well as personal". They argue that, "[s]tudents need to be familiar with how writing works as a tool of learning and of self-expression as well as to find personal voice in expository and academic tasks" (p. 385). This suggests that an approach that combines the student's own unique, individual experience with the traditional academic perspective, results in a more effective learning experience. Like the Response, this kind of assessment aims to stimulate student engagement with, and not merely formulaic reconstruction of, new knowledge.

The written suggestions for the improvement of the Response revealed another interesting trend. Firstly, less than half of the respondents registered any concerns in the "Suggestions for improving the Response" section. Secondly, on closer inspection of the completed surveys, it was noted that the students could be separated into two distinct groups. Of the thirty-two students who suggested improvements to the Response, twenty-three students registered concerns about the lack of prescribed questions and asked for more direction as to topics. For example, as one student expressed:

I prefer some kind of direction for assignments. I would have liked a definite question to answer.
This response was representative of the concerns of the group. These twenty-three students expressed varying levels of anxiety over the lack of set questions. A possible reason for this would be the students' own lack of experience in devising topics in previous assessments, given the dominance of the traditional essay form. Also, we can posit that perhaps these students were more used to teacher-centred learning, which is a form of learning that the Response overtly challenges, due to its emphasis on the students' own ideas, opinions and interpretations.

In light of these responses, I reanalysed the quantitative data in Section One of the survey by splitting the students into two distinct subgroups. The first group contained those twenty-three students who expressed a preference for set questions, and the second group included the remaining forty-three students who did not mention a preference for set questions.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Means for each question in students who asked for set questions and those who did not

As Figure 1 demonstrates, the group who requested questions were understandably in less agreement with Questions 4 and 5: the statements about the usefulness of the Response and its favourable comparison to other models of assessment. It is also consistent that in response to Question 3, this group would correlate to a low level of satisfaction, as part of their definition of adequate instructions would likely involve the inclusion of specific set questions. What is interesting though, is that this subgroup nevertheless still acknowledges that the process of writing the Response has stimulated their own opinions and also motivated reflection on their own writing processes. Means for the two groups for Question 1 and 2 were very similar, indicating that the anxiety about a lack of guidance as to topics, was nevertheless accompanied by an acknowledgment that the students were benefiting in other ways.

In the Response, a student-centred approach is a key component of the assessment. It is designed to encourage students to become more reflective about their engagement with both primary and secondary texts. It aims to stimulate students to incorporate their own ideas, integrate the materials and to make connections. Hence, a longer-term outcome of this form of assessment is the development of deeper critical-thinking skills. One student reflects both the positive and more challenging aspects of this task:

It is the first time I have been able to develop my own question and thus have been able to write on a topic that personally interests me rather than tailoring my own ideas to fit a provided question. While this was a new challenge and a little daunting it was also extremely useful in the development of my writing skills.
What this might suggest is that perceived challenges with this form of assessment do not necessarily indicate a lack of value to the teaching and learning process. I will return to this point later, as I move on to a discussion of teachers' impressions of the Response.

Teacher surveys

Teaching staff from the past two years who have implemented and assessed the Response were interviewed for their perceptions of this style of assessment. These included all staff involved in teaching Romanticism and Revolution in 2006.

Overall, the interviewees registered ambivalent attitudes to the Response. One tutor noted that the more flexible structure of the Response led to some students opting to write inadequate "emotional responses to the text". Similarly another tutor indicated that the approach led to problematic "uncritical and descriptive" writing. This was a tendency noticed by several teachers, but I would ask the question: Is this unique to the Response? Certainly other forms of assessment, for example, the traditional essay, are not immune to producing uncritical or descriptive writing from some students.

A 2006 Romanticism and Revolution tutor further reflected the complexities of the Response assessment:

I have found that it compares both favourably and unfavourably to other forms of assessment, particularly essay writing. Unfavourably simply because students are confused about just what is expected of them in this type of assessment. Favourably because I did find that because they were confused, they came to see me about it.
Like this teacher, several other staff noticed that students would discuss the process of writing a Response with them, and seek clarification of expectations, to a greater extent than with more traditional forms of assessment. Increased discussion of the assessment in tutorials was also shown to be a trend. While this is often interpreted as evidence of student anxiety toward assessment, I would argue that greater peer-to-peer discussion can be a valuable learning experience for the students. Moreover, increased consultation of tutors can strengthen the teacher-student relationship. If students' processes of thinking about and writing Responses require more consideration and preparation than other more familiar assessments, this points to unlimited potential benefits for the quality of teaching and learning. If students are encouraged to discuss their writing with their tutors, and each other, this can create a positive learning experience, with increased informal discussion and feedback prior to the assessment.

In 2004, a Unit Coordinator noticed a trend of student anxiety amongst the first group of students to complete the Response. However, despite this, feedback singled out the Response as a positive learning experience. While I do not wish to trivialise the impact of student anxieties, perhaps these can be managed through certain techniques. One tutor suggested a possible strategy whereby, "more time needs to be set-aside in lectures to explain what the response means and why it is set". This approach might ensure that students are aware of the pedagogical rationale for setting a Response instead of the expected, standard essay form. This might allay anxieties on the part of both students and tutors.

In their 2006 study, Elander et al, found that essay writing provoked high levels of anxiety among students, because the components of a good essay are often unclear to both teachers and learners (p. 72). This study suggests that assessment criteria need to be more clearly considered, defined and communicated in order to promote effective student learning. If the essay form retains its stranglehold upon university assessment, especially in the Humanities and Arts, some innovation from within the model is timely. The Response, with its detailed guidelines and criteria fulfils this requirement for the clarification and communication of what is expected from students. However, this does suggest a future study, which compares the anxieties of students in relation to several models of assessment including the Response and a more traditional essay form.

In the surveys of teachers, most staff recognised the need for a variety of models of assessment, including non-traditional forms, like the Response. As this teacher noted:

I think (and hope) that it can allow for greater contemplation by the student on the writing and pre-writing processes. As it has enormous potential for self-reflexivity, it can allow them to reflect on and hopefully reach a great understanding of their own thought processes. From a teacher's point of view, it's often very interesting to read the students' personalised responses and their individual journeys with the text. I think of the exercise as a "behind the scenes" look at the process of comprehending and grappling with a text -- the things you never get to see when you read a standard essay. In a standard essay you usually only see the end product, not the means by which they attained the argument and reasoning.
This overtly demonstrates the potential of the Response to provide a more effective learning experience wherein teachers can be made more aware of the learning processes in which their students engage.

Conclusion

The results of this study indicate that the Response is aligned with desired learning outcomes. Despite uneasiness about embarking on an assessment that did not provide set questions, students felt that they were motivated to develop their own ideas. Therefore the anxiety felt by both students and teachers in relation to this new model, is not necessarily a poor reflection on the Response. While student and teacher concerns can be managed, and the implementation of the Response adapted in several ways, I would suggest that my research indicates that the Response stimulates a higher level of engagement with the assessment process. Students have to actively think about how to write a Response and teachers are motivated to provide clear indications of what is expected. There is more consultation between teachers and students during the process of writing, which can only benefit both parties. Future research directions might include a more in-depth analysis of how student anxiety factors into the assessment process. Also, a survey that includes student and teacher impressions of a range of assessment models might inform a deeper understanding. These studies might also aim to assess understandings of assessment criteria, and to address student perceptions at various stages of the writing process. While acknowledging the challenges that new models of assessment provide for both students and staff, this research reflects the unlimited potential of innovative assessment practice for the improvement of teaching and learning.

References

Andrews, R. (2003). The end of the essay? Teaching in Higher Education, 8, 117-28.

Biggs, J. (2003). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: The Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Boud, D. (1995). Assessment or learning: Contradictory or complementary? In P. Knight (Ed.), Assessment for learning in higher education (2nd ed., pp. 35-48). London: Kogan Page.

Brown, S. & Knight, P. (1994). Assessing learners in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Elander, J., Harrington, K., Norton, L., Robinson, H. & Eddy, P. (2006). Complex skills and academic writing: A review of evidence about the types of learning required to meet core assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 31, 71-90.

Freeman, R. & Lewis, R. (1998). Planning and implementing assessment. London: Kogan Page.

Lavelle, E. & Zuercher, N. (2001). Writing approaches of university students. Higher Education, 42, 373-391.

Light, G. & Cox, P. (2001). Learning and teaching in higher education: The reflective professional. London: Sage Publications.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1 is contained in the PDF format file, jaquet2.pdf

Author: Alison Jaquet is a PhD student in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She was awarded a Postgraduate Teaching Internship in 2006 and has been teaching this year in the units Ideas of Modernity and Romanticism and Revolution. Her research interests include nineteenth-century literature and culture, and teaching and learning.

Alison Jaquet, English and Cultural Studies (M202), The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. Email: jaquea01@student.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Jaquet, A. (2007). Engaging the student writer in university assessment: The Response. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/jaquet.html

Copyright 2007 Alison Jaquet. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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Created 27 Dec 2006. Last revision: 24 Jan 2007.