53 powerful ideas (well, 4 of them at least) – notes from the reading group

This month we picked articles from SEDA’s 53 powerful ideas all teachers should know about blog.

Mike read Students’ marks are often determined as much by the way assessment is configured as by how much students have learnt

Many of the points made in this article are hard to dispute. Different institutions and subject areas vary so widely that not only are how marks are determined different between say Fine Art and Medicine, but also between similar subjects at the same institution, and also between the same subject at different institutions. This may reflect policy or process (eg dropping the lowest mark before calculating final grade).  In particular, Gibbs argues that coursework tends to encourage students to focus on certain areas of the curriculum, rather than testing knowledge of the whole curriculum.  Gibbs also feels these things are not always clear to external examiners. He does not feel that QAA emphasis on learning outcomes address these shortcomings.

The article (perhaps not surprisingly) does not come up with a perfect answer to what is a complex problem. Would we expect Fine Artists to be assessed in the same way as doctors? How can we ensure qualifications from different institutions are comparable? Some ideas are explored, such as asking students to write more course work essays to cover the curriculum, and then marking a sample. This is however rejected as something students would not tolerate. The main thing I can take from this is that thinking carefully about what you really need to assess when designing the assessment is important (nothing new really). For example, is it important that students take away a breadth of knowledge of the curriculum, or develop a sophistication of argument? Design the assessment to reflect the need.

Suzi read Standards applied to teaching are lower than standards applied to research and You can measure and judge teaching

The first article looks at the difference between the way academics receive training for teaching and the way research and the way teaching and research are evaluated and accredited. Teaching, as you might imagine, comes off worse in all cases. There aren’t any solutions proposed, though the author muses on what would happen if they were treated in the same way:

“Imagine a situation in which the bottom 75% of academics, in terms of teaching quality, were labelled ‘inactive’ as teachers and so didn’t do it (and so were not paid for it).”

The second argues that students can evaluate courses well if you ask them right things: to comment on behaviour which are known to affect learning. There didn’t seem to be enough evidence in the article to really evaluate his conclusions.

The argument put at the end seemed sensible: that evaluating for student engagement works well (while evaluating for satisfaction, as we do in the UK, doesn’t).

The SEEQ, a standardised (if long) list of questions for evaluating teaching by engagement, looks like a useful resource.

Roger read Students do not necessarily know what is good for them.

This describes three examples where students and/or the NUS have demanded or expressed a preference for certain things, which may not actually be to their benefit in the longer term. He believes that these cases can be due to a lack of sophistication of learners (“unsophisticated learners want unsophisticated teaching”) or a lack of awareness of what the consequences of their demands might be (in policy or practice). The first example is class contact hours. Gibbs asserts that there is a strong link between total study hours (including independent study) and learning gain, but no such link between class contact hours and learning gain. Increasing contact hours often means increasing class sizes which generally means a dip in student performance levels.   Secondly he looks at assessment criteria, saying that students are demanding “ever more detailed specification of criteria for marking” , which he states are ineffective in themselves for helping students get good marks, as people interpret criteria differently. A more effective mechanism would be discussion of a range of examples where students have approached a task in different ways, and how these meet the criteria. Thirdly he says that students want marks for everything, but evidence suggests that they learn more when receiving formative feedback with no marks, as otherwise they can focus more on the mark than the feedback itself.

The solution, he suggests is to make evidence-based judgements which take into account student views, but are not entirely driven by them, to try to help students develop their sophistication as learners and to explain why you are taking a certain approach. This article resonated with me in a number of ways, especially with regard to assessment criteria and feedback. There is an excellent example of practice in the Graduate School of Education where the lecturer provides a screencast in which she goes through an example of a top level assignment, explaining what makes it so good.  She has found that this has greatly reduced the number of student queries along the lines of “What do I need to do to get a first / meet the criteria”.  I also strongly agree with his point about explaining to students the rationale for taking a particular pedagogic approach. Sometimes we can assume that students know why a certain teaching method is educationally beneficial in a particular context, but in reality they don’t. And sometimes students resist particular approaches (peer review anyone!) without necessarily having the insight into how they may be helpful for their learning.