Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Assessment in Higher Education conference 2015

I am writing this on a sunny evening, sitting in a pub overlooking Old Turn Junction, part of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, with a well-earned beer after two fascinating and exhausting days at the Assessment in Higher Education conference.

It was a lovely conference. The organising committee had set out to try to make it friendly and welcoming and they succeeded. There was a huge range of interesting talks and since I could not clone myself I was not able to go to them all. I am not going to describe individual talks in detail, but rather draw out what seemed to me to be the common themes.

A. It is all just assessment

The first keynote speaker (Maddalena Taras) said this directly, and there were a couple of other things along the same lines: the split between formative and summative assessment is a false dichotomy. If an assessment does not actually evaluate the students (give them a grade, hence summative) then it misses the main function of an assessment. This is not the same as saying that every assessment must be high stakes. Conversely, in the words of a quote Sally reminded me of:

“As I have noted, summative assessment is itself ‘formative’. It cannot help but be formative. That is not an issue. At issue is whether that formative potential of summative assessment is lethal or emancipatory. Does formative assessment exert its power to discipline and control, a power so possibly lethal that the student may be wounded for life? … Or, to the contrary, does summative assessment allow itself to be conquered by the student, who takes up a positive, even belligerent stance towards it, determined to extract every human possibility that it affords?” (Boud & Falchikov (2007) Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education: Learning for the Longer Term)

The first keynote was a critique of Assessment for Learning (AfL). Not that assessment should not help students learn. Of course it should. Rather, the speaker questioned some of the specific recommendations from the AfL literature in a thought-provoking way.

The 'couple of other things' were a talk from Jill Barber of School of Pharmacy at Birmingham, about giving students quite detailed feedback after their end of year exams; and Sally Jordan’s talk (which I did not go to since I have heard it internally at the OU) about the OU Science faculty's semantic wranglings about whether all their assessment gets called “summative” or “formative”, and hence how the marks for the separate assignments are added up, without changing what the assessed tasks actually are.

B. Do students actually attend to feedback?

The second main theme came out many times. On the one hand, students say they like feedback and demand more of it. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of evidence that many students don’t spend much time reading it, or that when they do, it does not necessarily help them to improve. So, there were various approaches suggested for getting students to engage more with feedback, for example by

  • giving feedback via a screen-cast video, talking them through their essay highlighting with the mouse (David Wright & Damian Kell, Manchester Metropolitan University). Would students spend 19 minutes reading and digestion written feedback on an essay? Well, they got a 19 minute (on average) video - one of the few cases where some students thought it was too much feedback!
  • making feedback a dialogue. That is, encouraging students to write questions on the cover sheet when they hand the work in, for their tutor to answer as part of the feedback. That was what Rebecca Westrup from the University of East Anglia was doing.
  • Stefanie Sinclair from the OU religious studies department talked about work she had one with John Butcher & Anactoria Clarke assessing reflection in an access module (a module to designed to help students with limited prior education to develop the skills they need to study at Level 1). Again, this was to encourage students to engage in a dialogue with their tutor about their learning.
  • Using peer and self assessment, so that students spend more time engaging with the assessment criteria by applying them to their own and other’s work. Also the suggestion from Maddalena Taras was that initially you give the student’s work back without the marks or feedback (but after a couple of weeks of marking) so that they read it with fresh eyes before they get the feedback (first) then the marks.
  • There was another peer assessment talk, by Blazenka Divjak of the University of Zagreb, using the Moodle Workshop tool. The results were along the same lines as other similar talks I have seen (for example at the OU where we are also experimenting with the same tool). Peer assessment activities do help students understand the assessment criteria. It helps them appreciate what teachers do more. Students’ grading of their peers, particularly in aggregate, is reliable, and comparable to the teacher’s grade.
  • A case of automated marking (in this case of programming exercises) where students clearly did engage with the feedback because they were allowed to submit repeatedly until they got it right. In computer programming this is authentic. It is what I do when doing Moodle development. (Stephen Nutbrown, Su Beesley, Colin Higgins, University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University.)
  • It was also something Sally touched on in her part of our talk. With the OU's computer-marked questions with multiple tries, students say the feedback helps them learn and that they like it. However, if you look at the data or usability lab observations, you see that in some cases some students are clearly paying not attention to the feedback they get.

C. The extent to which transparency in assessment is desirable

This was the main theme of the closing keynote by Jo-Anne Baird from the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment. The proposition is that if assessment is not transparent enough, it is unfair because students don’t really understand what is expected of them. A lot of university assessment is probably towards this end of the spectrum.

Conversely, if assessment is too transparent it encourages pathological teaching to the test. This is probably where most school assessment is right now, and it is exacerbated by the excessive ways school exams are made hight stakes, for the student, the teacher and the school. Too much transparency (and risk averseness) in setting assessment can lead to exams that are too predicable, hence students can get a good mark by studying just those things that are likely to be on the exam. This damages validity, and more importantly damages education.

Between these extremes there is a desirable balance where students are given enough information about what is required of them to enable them to develop as knowledgable and independent learners, without causing pathological behaviour. That, at least, is the hope.

While this was the focus of the last keynote, it resonated with several of the talks I listed in the previous section.

D. The NSS & other acronyms

The National Student Survey (NSS) is clearly a driver for change initiatives at a lot of other universities (as it was two years ago). It is, or at least it is perceived to be a, big deal. Therefore it can be used as a catalyst or leaver to get people to review and change their assessment practices since feedback and assessment is something that students often give low ratings for. This struck me as odd, since I am not aware of this happening at the OU. I assume that is because the OU has so far scored highly in the NSS.

The other acronym floating around a lot was TESTA. This seems to be a framework for reviewing the assessment practice of a whole department or degree programme. In one case, however (a talk by Jessica Evans & Simon Bromley of the OU faculty of Social Science) their review was done before TESTA was invented, though along similar lines.


A big thank-you to Sue Bloxham and the rest of the organising team for putting together a great conference. Roll on 2017.

Friday, May 1, 2015

eSTEeM conference 2015

eSTEeM is an organising group within the Open University which brings together people doing research into teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Naturally enough for the OU, a lot of that work revolves around educational technology. Once a year they have an annual conference for people to share what they have been doing. I went along because I like to see what people have been doing with our VLE, and hence how we could make it work better for students and staff in the future.

It started promisingly enough in a way. As I walked in to get my cup of coffee after registration, I was immediately grabbed by Elaine Moore from Chemistry who had two Moodle Quiz issues. She wanted the Combined question type to use the HTML editor for multiple choice choices (good idea, we should put that on the backlog) and a problem with a Pattern-match questions which we could not get to the bottom of over coffee.

But, on to the conference itself. I cannot possibly cover all the keynotes and parallel sessions so I will pick the highlights for me.

Assessment matters to students

The first was a graph from Linda Price’s keynote. Like most universities, at the end of every module we give have a student satisfaction survey. The graph showed the student's ratings in response to three of the questions:

  • Overall, I am satisfied with the quality of this module.
  • I had a clear understanding of what was required to complete the assessed activities.
  • The assessment activities supported my learning.

There was an extremely strong correlation between those. This is nothing very new. We know that assessment is important in determining the ‘hidden curriculum’, and hence we like to think that ‘authentic assessment’ is important. However, it is interesting to see how much this matters this is to students. Previously, I would not even have been sure that they could tell the difference.

The purpose of education

Into the parallel sessions. There was an interesting talk from the module team for TU100 my digital life, the first course in the computing and technology degrees. Some of the things they do in that module’s teaching is based around the importance of language, even in science. Learning a subject can be thought of as learning to construct the world of that subject through language, or as they put it, humanities style thinking in technology education. Unsurprisingly, many students don’t like that “I came to learn computing, not writing.” However, there is a strong correlation between students language use and their performance in assessments. By the end of the module some students do come to appreciate what the module is trying to do.

This talk triggered a link to back to another part of Linda Price’s keynote. An important (if now rather cliched question) for formal education is “What is education for everything is now available on the web?” (or one might put that more crudely as “Why should students pay thousands of pounds for one of our degrees?”). The answer that came to me during this talk was “To make them do things they don’t enjoy, because we know it will do them good.” OK, so that is a joke, but I would like to think there is a nugget of truth in there.

Peer assessment

On to more specifically Moodle-related things. A number of modules have been trying out Moodle’s Workshop activity. That is a tool for peer review or peer assessment. The talk was from the SD815 Contemporary issues in brain and behaviour module team. Their activity involved students recording a presentation (PowerPoint + audio) that critically evaluated a research article. Then they had to upload them to the Moodle Workshop, and review each others presentations as managed by the tool. Finally, they had to take their slide-cast, the feedback they had received, and a reflective note on the process and what they had learned from it, and hand it all in to be graded by their tutor.

Now for OU students (at least) collaborative activities, particularly those tied to assessments, are typically another thing we make them do that they don’t enjoy. This activity added the complexities of PowerPoint and/or Open Office and recording audio. However, it seems to have worked remarkably well. Students appreciated all the things that are normally said about peer review: getting to see other approaches to the same task; practising the skills of evaluating others’ work and giving constructive feedback. In this case the task was one that the students (healthcare workers studying at postgraduate level) could see was relevant to their vocation, which brings us back to visibly authentic assessment, and the student satisfaction graph from the opening keynote.

For me the strongest message from this talk, however, is what was not said. There was very little said about the Moodle workshop tool, beyond a few screen-grabs to show what it looked like. It seems that this is a tool that does what you need it to do without getting in the way, which is normally what you want from educational technology.

Skipping briefly over

There are many more interesting things I could write about in detail, but to keep this post to a reasonable length I will just skim over the posters with lunch. For example,

And, some of the other talks:

  • a session on learning analytics, in this case with a neural net, to try to identify early on those students (on TU100 again) who get through all the continuous assessment tasks with a passing grade, only to fail the end of module assessment, so that they could be targeted for extra support.
  • a whole morning on the second day, where we saw nine different approaches to remote experiments from around the world. For example, the Open University's remote control telescope PIRATE. I was left me with the impression that this sort of thing is much more feasible and worthwhile than I had previously thought.

Our session on online Quizzes

The only other session I will talk about in detail is the one I helped run. It was a ‘structured discussion’ about the OU’s use of iCMAs (which is what we call Moodle quizzes). I found this surprisingly nerve-wracking. I have given plenty of talks before, and you prepare them. You know what you are going to say, and you are fairly sure it is interesting. Therefore you are pretty sure what is going to happen. For this session, we just had three questions, and it was really up to the attendees how well it worked.

We did allow ourselves two five-minute presentations. We started with Frances Chetwynd showing some the different ways quizzes are used in modules’ teaching and assessment strategies. This set up a 10-minute discussion of our first question: “How are iCMAs best be used as part of an assessment strategy?”. For this, delegates were seated around four tables, with four of five participants and a facilitator to each table. The tables were covered with flip-chart paper for people to write on.

We were using a World Café format, so after 10 minutes I rang my bell, and all the delegates move to a new table while the facilitators stayed put. Then, in new groups, they discussed the second question: "How can we engage students using iCMAs?" The facilitators were meant to make a brief bridge between what had been said in the previous group at their table, before moving on to the new question with the new group.

After 10 minutes on the second question, we had the other five-minute talk from Sally Jordan, showing some examples of what we have previously learned through scholarship into how iCMAs work in practice. (If you are interested in that, come to my talk at either MoodleMoot IE UK 2015 or iMoot 2015). This lead nicely, after one more round of musical chairs, to the third question: "Where next for iCMAs? Where next for iCMA scholarship?". Finally we wrapped up with a brief plenary to capture they key answers to that last question from each table.

By the end, I really had no idea how well it had gone, although each time I rang my bell, I felt I was interrupting really good conversations. Subsequently, I have written up the notes from each table, and heard from some of the attendees that they had found it useful and interesting, so that is a relief. We had a great team of facilitators (Frances, Jon, Ingrid, Anna) which helped. I would certainly consider using the the same format again. With a traditional presentation, you are always left with the worry that perhaps you got more out of preparing and delivering the presentation than any of the audience did out of listening. In this case, I am sure the audience got much more out of it than me, which is no bad thing.