Last week I attended the Assessment in Higher Education conference in Birmingham. This was the least technology and most education conference that I have been to. It was interesting to learn about the bigger picture of assessment in universities. One reason for going was that Sally Jordan wanted my help running a 'masterclass' about producing good computer-marked assessment on the first morning. I may write more about that in a future post. Also I presented a poster about all the different online assessment systems the OU uses. Again a possible future topic. For now I will summarise the other parts of the conference, the presentations I listed to.
One thing I was surprised to discover is how much the National Student Survey (NSS) is influencing what universities do. Clearly it is seen as something that prospective students pay attention to, and attracting students is important. However, as Margaret Price from Oxford Brookes University, the first keynote speaker said, the kind of assessment that students like (and so rate highly in NSS) is not necessarily the most effective educationally. That is, while student satisfaction is something worth considering, students don't have all the knowledge to evaluate the teaching they receive. Also, she suggested that the NSS ratings have made universities more risk-averse in trying innovative forms of assessment and teaching.
The opening keynote was about "Assessment literacy", making the case that students need to be taught a bit about how assessment works, so they can engage with it most effectively. That is, we want the students to be familiar with the mechanics of what they are being asked to do in assessment, so those mechanics don't get in the way of the learning; but more than that, we want the students to learn the most from all the tasks we set them, and assessment tasks are the ones students pay the most attention to, so we should help the students understand why they are being asked to do them. I dispute one thing the Margaret Price said. She said that at the moment, if assessment literacy is developed at all, that only happens serendipitously. However, in my time as a student, there were plenty of times when it was covered (although not by that name) in talks about study skill and exam technique.
Another interesting realisation during the conference was that, at least in that company (assessment experts), the "Assessment for learning" agenda is taken as a given. It is used as the reason that some things are done, but there is no debate that it is the right thing to do.
Something that is a hot topic at the moment is more authentic assessment. I think it is partly driven by technology improvements making it possible to capture a wider range of media, and to submit eportfolios. It is also driven by a desire for better pedagogy, and assessments that by their design make plagiarism harder. If you are being asked to apply what you have learned to something in your life (for example in a practice-based subject like nursing) it is much harder to copy from someone else.
I ended up going to all three of the talks given by OU folks. Is it really necessary to go to Birmingham to find out what is going on in the OU? Well, it was a good opportunity to do so. The first of these was about an on-going project to review the OU's assessment strategy across the board. So far a set of principles have been agreed (for example affirming the assessment for learning approach, athough that is nothing new at the OU) and they are about to be disseminated more widely. There was an interesting slide (which provoked some good discussion) pointing out that you need to balance top-down policy and strategy with bottom up implementation that allows each faculty use assessment that is effective for their particular discipline. There was another session by people from Ulster and Liverpool Hope universities that also talked about the top-down/bottom-up balance/conflict in policy changes.
In this OU talk, someone made a comment along the lines, "why is the OU re-thinking its assessment strategy? You are so far ahead of us already and we are still trying to catch up." I am familiar with hearing comments like that at education technology conferences. It was interested to learn that we are also held in similarly high for policy. The same questioner also used the great phrase "the OU effectively has a sleeper-cell in every other university, in the associate lecturer you employ". That makes what the OU does sound far more excitingly aggressive than it really is.
In the second OU talk, Janet Haresnape described a collaborative online activity in a third level environmental science course. These are hard to get right. I say that having suffered one as a student some years ago. This one seems to have been more successful, at least in part because it was carefully structured. Also, it started with some very easy tasks (put your name next to a picture and count some things in it), and the students could see the relationship between the slightly artificial task and what would happen in real fieldwork. Janet has been surveying and interviewing students to discover their attitudes towards this activity. The most interesting finding is that weaker students comment more, and more favourably, on the collaboration than the better students. They have more to learn from their peers.
The third OU talk was Sally Jordan talking about the ongoing change in the science faculty from summative to formative continuous assessment. It is early days, but they are starting to get some data to analyse. Nothing I can easily summarise here.
The closing keynote was about oral assessment. In some practice-based subjects like law and veterinary medicine it is an authentic activity. Also, a viva is a dialogue, which allows the extent of the student's knowledge to be probed more deeply than a written exam. With an exam script, you can only mark what is there. If something the student has written is not clear, then there is no way to probe that further. That reminded me of what we do in the Moodle quiz. For example in the STACK question type, if the student has made a syntax error in the equation they typed, we ask them to fix it before we try to grade it. Similarly, in Pattern-match questions, we spell check the student's answer and let them fix any errors before we try to grade it. Also, with all our interactive questions, if the student's first answer is wrong, we give them some feedback then let them try again. If they can correct their mistake themselves, then they get some partial credit. Of course computer-marked testing is typically used to assess basic knowledge and concepts, whereas an oral exam is a good way to test higher-order knowledge and understanding, but the parallel of enabling two-way dialogue between student and assessor appealed to me.
This post is getting ridiculously long, but I have to mention two other talks. Calum Delaney from Cardiff Metropolitan University reported on some very interesting work trying to understand what academics think about as they mark an essays. Some essays are easy to grade, and an experienced marker will rapidly decide on the grade. Others, particularly those that are partly right and partly wrong, take a lot longer weighing up the conflicting evidence. Overall though, the whole marking process struck me, a relative outsider, as scarily subjective.
John Kleeman, chair of QuestionMark, UK, summarised some psychology research that shows that the best way to learn something so that you can remember it again is to test yourself on it, rather than just reading it. That is, if you want to be able to remember something, then practice remembering it. It sounds obvious when you put it that way, but the point is that there is strong evidence to back up that statement. So, clearly you should all now go and create Moodle (or QuestionMark) quizzes for your students. Also, in writing this long rambling blog post I have been practising recalling all the interesting things I learned at the conference, so I should remember them better in future. If you read this far, thank you, and I hope you got something out of it too.