Sharing the ‘secrets’: Involving students in the use (and design?) of marking schemes

Rita Balestrini, School of Literature and Languages,


Between 2016 and 2018, I led a project aiming to enhance the process of assessing foreign language skills in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies (MLES). The project was supported by the Teaching and Learning Development Fund. Its scope involved two levels of intervention: a pilot within one Part I language module (Beginners Italian Language) and other activities involving colleagues in all language sections and students from each year of study. The project enabled the start of a bank of exemplars for the assessment of a Part I language module; promoted discussion on marking and marking schemes within the department; and made possible a teacher-learner collaborative appraisal of rubrics.


  • To enhance Beginners Italian Language students’ understanding of rubrics and their assessment literacy
  • To increase their engagement with the assessment process and their uptake of feedback
  • To engage MLES students as agents of change in the assessment culture of the department
  • To stimulate innovation in the design of rubrics within the MLES Language Team and contribute to develop a shared discourse on assessment criteria and standards informed by the scholarship of assessment


In recent years, there has been an increasing demand to articulate explicitly the standards of assessment and to make them transparent in marking schemes in the form of rubrics, especially in Foreign Languages. It is widely held that the use of rubrics increases the reliability of assessment and fosters autonomy and self-regulation in students. However, it is not uncommon that students do not engage with the feedback that rubrics are supposed to provide. In 2016, the language team of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies started to work at the standardisation and enhancement of marking schemes used to assess language skills. The aim of this multi-layered project was to make a positive contribution to this process and to pilot a series of activities for the enhancement of foreign language assessment.


  • Review of research literature and scholarly articles on the use of standard-based assessment, assessment rubrics, and students-derived marking criteria.
  • Presentation on some of the issues emerged from the review at a School T&L Away Day on assessment attended by the MLES language team (April 2017) and at a meeting of the Language Teaching Community of Practice (November 2017).
  • Organisation of a ‘professional conversation’ on language assessment, evaluation and marking schemes as a peer review activity in the School of Literature and Languages (SLL). The meeting was attended by colleagues from MLES and CQSD (February 2018).
  • 2016-17 – Two groups of students on the Beginners Italian Language module were asked for permission to use exemplars of their written and oral work for pedagogic practice and research. Ten students gave their informed consent.
  • Collection of written and oral work, double-marked by a colleague teaching one of the groups.
  • 2017-2018 – Organization of two two-hour workshops on assessment for a new cohort of students. Aim: To clarify the link between marking criteria, learning outcomes and definitions of standards of achievement of the module. An anonymised selection of the exemplars collected the previous year was used a) ‘to show’ the quality of the standards described in the marking schemes and b) for marking exercises.
  • 2017 – Organisation of three focus groups with students – one for each year of study – to gain insights into their perspectives on the assessment process and understanding of marking criteria. The discussions were recorded and fully transcribed.
  • The transcriptions were analysed by using a discourse analysis framework.
  • Some issues emerged from the analysis: atomistic approach of rubrics; vagueness of the standards; subjectivity of the evaluation; problematic measuring of different aspects of achievement; rating scales anchoring (for a more comprehensive account of the focus groups see the Engage in T&L Blog post Involving students in the appraisal of rubrics for performance-based in Foreign Languages).
  • Developed, in collaboration with three students from the focus groups, a questionnaire on the use of rubrics. The questionnaire was intended to gather future students’ views on marking schemes and their use.


This multi-layered project contributed to enhance the process of assessing foreign language skills in MLES in different ways.

  • The collection of exemplars for the Beginners Italian Language module proved to be a useful resource that can also be used with future cohorts. The workshops were not attended by all students, but those who did attend engaged in the activities proposed and asked several interesting questions about the standards of achievement described in the marking schemes (e.g. grade definitions; use of terms and phrases).
  • The systematic analysis of the focus groups provided valuable insights into students’ disengagement with marking schemes. It also brought to light some issues that would need to be addressed before designing new rubrics.
  • The literature review provided research and critical perspectives on marking schemes as a tool of evaluation and a tool for learning. It suggested new ways of thinking about marking and rubrics and provided a scholarly basis for potential wider projects. The discussion it stimulated, however different the opinions, was an important starting point for the development of a shared discourse on assessment.


The fuzziness of marking students’ complex performance cannot be overcome by simply linking numerical marks to qualitative standard descriptors. As mentioned in a HEA document, even the most detailed rubrics cannot catch all the aspects of ‘quality’ (HEA, 2012) and standards can be better communicated by discussing exemplars. There is also an issue with fixing the boundaries between grades on a linear scale (Sadler, 2013) and the fact that, as Race warns, the dialogue between learners and assessors (Race, HEA) can easily be broken down by the evaluative terms typically used to pin down different standards of achievement. Despite all these pitfalls, in the current HE context, rubrics, if constructed thoughtfully and involving all stakeholders, can benefit learning and teaching.

By offering opportunities to discuss criteria and standards with students, rubrics can help to build a common understanding of how marks are assigned and so foster students’ literacy, especially if their use is supported by relevant exemplars.

The belief that rubrics need to be standardised across modules, levels and years of study makes designing rubrics particularly difficult for ‘foreign languages’. Cultural changes require time and the involvement of all stakeholders, especially where the changes concern key issues that are difficult to address without a shared view on language, language learning and assessment. A thorough discussion of rubrics can provide chances to share ideas on marking, assessment and language development not only between students and staff but also within a team of assessors.

I have tried to engage students in the appraisal of rubrics and to avoid a market research approach to focus groups. It is clear that, if we are committed to make any assessment experience a learning experience and to avoid the potential uneasiness that rubrics can cause students, we need to explore new ways of defining the standards of achievement in foreign languages. Establishing pedagogical partnerships with students seems a good way to start.

Follow up

I will encourage a differentiation of rubrics based on level of language proficiency and a collection of exemplars for other language modules. The natural follow up to this project would be to continue enhancing the rubrics used for evaluation and feedback in languages in the light of the analysis of the focus group discussions and the review of the literature on assessment, ideally with the collaboration of students. Possible connections between the marking schemes used to assess language modules and cultural modules will be explored.


HEA, 2012. A Marked Improvement. Transforming assessment in HE. York: Higher Education Academy.

Race, P. Using feedback to help students to learn [online] Available at   [accessed on 15/8/2018]

Sadler, D. R. 2013. The futility of attempting to codify academic achievement standards. Higher Education 67 (3): 273-288.


Links to related posts

‘How did I do?’ Finding new ways to describe the standards of foreign language performance. A follow-up project on the redesign of two marking schemes (DLC)

Working in partnership with our lecturers to redesign language marking schemes 

Involving students in the appraisal of rubrics for performance-based assessment in Foreign Languages By Dott. Rita Balestrini

Improving the student experience through the IWLP Tandem Language Learning scheme

Ali Nicholson, International Study and Language Institute 


Between 2016 and 2018 we have run a Tandem language scheme, whereby students studying a language with the Institution-wide Language Programme (IWLP) are paired up with a native speaker student, usually (though not always) a Visiting student.  Once introduced, the students spend one hour a week at a mutually convenient time and place for independent language practice, speaking 30 minutes in English, and 30 minutes in the IWLP target language.

Tandem Logo
Tandem language scheme

In 2016-17, a pilot scheme was run, involving only IWLP students of French and French native speakers, and this was supported by an International Study and Language Institute (ISLI) project fund. 40 students, or 20 paired ‘buddies’ enrolled.  In 2017-18, the scheme was rolled out to a further 6 languages offered by the IWLP (German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, Arabic and Japanese) and around 100 students participated.  This phase was supported by a Teaching and Learning Development fund. The scheme for this academic year has just been launched, this time to include Spanish, so 8 Tandem languages will be offered.  Erasmus students were already enquiring about it in Welcome week.


  • To increase the ‘resources’ offered by the IWLP to its students, at low cost to the University, thus improving the student experience of Home students
  • To improve the language learning of both Tandem ‘buddies’
  • To improve the student experience of international students by increasing their sense of belonging through linking them directly to ‘Home’ students
  • To increase intercultural awareness and competence of both parties


  • The University of Reading has historically not been a particularly welcoming place for International students, falling in the bottom half of UK Universities for international students feeling at home, making friends with UK students and engaging with the host community, according to i-graduate International Student barometer research quoted by Vincenzo Raimo in his presentation on Global Engagement back in 2015. 
  • Erasmus students are regularly dismayed at the low number of contact hours offered by UK universities; French students, for example, are used to classes from 9am to 5pm or even longer, so are actively looking for extra activities to keep them occupied during the day.
  • In student evaluations from IWLP students, extra contact hours are often perceived as a way of improving performance, and in the current climate, additional contact hours by staff are simply not an available resource for clear financial reasons. 
  • Finally, in the UoR Curriculum Framework, global engagement and multi-cultural awareness are key attributes for UoR graduates to gain, and the Tandem scheme will help our students start to attain these desirable skills to enable them to become ‘global citizens’. 


Students enrol on to the Tandem scheme through a simple online form.  The scheme is advertised to international students (for native speakers) through the Erasmus and Study Abroad Office in their Welcome Pack, through the Red Award magazine, and again through a short presentation in Welcome week.  International students are also sent emails by IWLP tutors, informing them of the scheme and inviting them to enrol.  Students studying languages through the Institution-Wide Language Programme (to form the other ‘half’ of the Tandem pair) are also invited by their tutors to enrol.  The Tandem scheme is available only to IWLP students from Stage 2 (Post beginners) upwards, as it is felt that absolute beginners would find the idea of a one-to-one with a native speaker somewhat daunting. 

Once enrolled, both the International students and the ‘home’ IWLP language students are invited to a short information session.  Here they learn about the process of Tandem learning and about some resources made available to them (a Blackboard Organisation which includes some optional ‘tasks’, plus a website they can use for inspiration of what to talk about).  Finally, with the atmosphere somewhat akin to Blind Date (for those who can remember that) or possibly Tinder, they are assigned their Tandem ‘buddy’.  They are asked immediately to exchange mobile numbers and to fix the first Tandem meeting.  It is recommended that this should take place within a week, and in a public place such as the Self Access Centre for Language Learning (EM230).

For the most part, Tandem buddies meet regularly and with no problems.  Sometimes it is the start of a true friendship; occasionally, due to lack of time or (once) conflict of personalities, the pair only met on one occasion, never to be repeated… 

My contact email is available to every Tandem student, regardless of language, and we offer to find a replacement partner if there is a problem. 

Students are invited to occasional social events and once a term, to a meeting to discuss the scheme in order to discuss possible improvements.  At the end of last year, a celebratory party was held where certificates were presented to students.


We sent out a survey to the students at the end of the Autumn and Spring term, so they could evaluate the scheme.  In December 2017, the overall rating for the Tandem scheme was 8.14 out of 10, where a rating of 0 was ‘terrible’ and 10 was excellent.   86% would recommend the scheme to others. In April 2018, the number recommending the scheme stayed constant at 86%, and the overall rating improved very slightly to 8.18.   78% stated that their motivation had increased in December, which increased again to 90% in April!   Speaking and vocabulary were the two aspects which were felt to have increased the most, closely followed by cultural awareness in December; in the April survey, speaking and pronunciation were felt to have increased the most, followed by listening, vocabulary and cultural awareness.

Most students completing the survey made positive comments.  Here are two examples:

“Thank you for creating such valuable opportunities. Please do continue to operate this wonderful scheme in the next academic year so that more students could benefit from it.”

“I guess the scheme itself is a wonderful opportunity for students to learn different languages and cultures.”


The Tandem scheme is limited by the number of native speakers available.  However, as awareness of the scheme builds, hopefully more Home students who are in fact native speakers of languages other than English will also participate, rather than just Visiting students, so the scheme can expand.

There are of course other Tandem platforms available outside the University, such as online, but it seems that one of the main reasons for the success of this locally based Tandem scheme is the face to face relationships formed.  According to Doug Parkin (2017: 208) in his chapter on leading engagement: “there are four foundations or dimensions that help to optimise the student learning experience… (these are) motivation, relationships, environment and resources”.

Students want relationships with fellow students.  These fellow students (Tandem partners) are themselves a rich and accessible resource.  They are flexible and available on campus; and they provide both extrinsic motivation (exam results might improve/English language might improve) and intrinsic motivation (naturally satisfying to form a good friendship just because it is enjoyable). Thus, in the four dimensions proposed by Parkin, Tandem can contribute in a small but significant way to the student experience.

This year Tandem has moved on from being simply a language learning exchange.  Due to the imbalance between supply and demand, on occasion tandem pairs have been formed between for example Japanese-French; French-Chinese; and French-German.  Some Erasmus students requested more than one ‘buddy’.  In the first example, both students spoke good English, so they decided that instead of the typical French/English exchange, the Japanese student would teach beginner Japanese to the French student, and the French student would ask a lot of questions in French about Japanese culture.  This became a perfectly satisfactory exchange but was not the initial objective.  A flexible approach led to a successful mutual gain, certainly in terms of intercultural awareness.


In 2018-19, the Tandem scheme should be sustainable in terms of staffing resource, as most of the systems have been set up already.   More work will be done on raising intercultural awareness amongst participants, by producing an explanatory screencast and some optional tasks which tandem ‘buddies’ could complete in their pairs.   Last year’s students requested a little more input from staff, so two sessions will be offered this term, one to discuss how to handle error corrections and to recommend suitable discussion topics; a second session would be purely social.  Some students thought that changing Tandem buddies for the second term might improve the scheme.  It is important though that this scheme is publicised, for its success.  Please direct any interested native speaker students to me at

Tandem students
Students receiving Tandem certificates – June 2018


Parkin, D. (2017), Leading Learning and teaching in Higher Education (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge)

Outward mobility and real world engagement

Alison Nader and Ali Nicholson, Lecturers, International Study and Language Institute                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Year of activity 2017/18


For the past 2 years UoR students taking IWLP French 20 credit optional modules have had the opportunity to undertake 2 weeks of intensive language study in France at CUEF, Université Grenoble Alpes.

Students arrange their own travel and accommodation with light touch support from IWLP staff.

They now have the possibility to take a credit module based on their experience, in the academic year following their return from France.

 IWLP Students arriving at the CUEF, Université Grenoble Alpes, France


  • To give students the opportunity to study and live independently in France for a short period of time.
  • To improve language skills, in particular speaking and listening in real world situations.
  • To offer the opportunity to use their real world experience on a credit bearing IWLP language module.


  • In SSLC meetings and end of year module evaluations, students had been asking for the opportunity to spend a short period of time in France.
  • The placement needed to fit around the students’ core studies.
  • Recognition by UUki that outward mobility experiences are increasingly important for graduate attributes.
  • University of Reading’s ambitious outward mobility targets.


Initially this experience was conceived of as a trip abroad, responding to student requests for recommendations of where they could go to take a short intensive language course.  Two members of IWLP staff researched short language courses offered by French universities.  Having identified CUEF, a part of l’Université Grenoble Alpes, as having a suitable offering, IWLP staff visited the Centre, met the French staff and observed teaching on the courses.

Before leaving for France, students are supported with briefing sessions given by IWLP French staff but have to organise travel, accommodation and where necessary visas, themselves.

The classes take place outside UoR term time and to date students have either chosen to go for two weeks during the Easter holidays or in early September.

In the first year 2016-17, 10 students took up the opportunity and this year the expectation is that numbers will increase, 10 have just returned and more will be travelling out in September.  Students have to pay the fees, travel and accommodation.  So far each cohort has received a small bursary from UoR but this is not guaranteed.

In 2017-18 students were offered the opportunity to select a credit bearing placement module on their return.  A small number of students opted to take the module and the improvement in their ability to undertake an oral presentation in French was truly remarkable.


From the student perspective, their competence in speaking and listening in French demonstrably improved.  The improvement for those who took the credit bearing module was measurable from comparative assessment results before and after the placement.

Students also acquired transferable skills and increased their independence, confidence and motivation.  In feedback one of the students commented: “going by yourself from a country to another implies responsibility and independence” and another mentioned how the experience increased her general confidence.

These gains also came from practising in a real world situation and, for those who had not visited France before, a greater cultural understanding of the country where the language is spoken.  Increased linguistic confidence and cultural awareness was cited in feedback by a student who commented on his motivation for going on the placement, to improve his French as well as to “really understand what it takes to learn French by understanding the culture”.

The mobility opportunity also contributes to the UoR Global engagement strategy and outward mobility targets.


Quite apart from an increase in students’ linguistic competence, they gain in independence and heighten their intercultural awareness.  The cohesive group that went to France this spring are themselves from eight different countries.  This time, as a “bonus” they experienced at first hand strikes and blockades of university buildings: coping with all of this strengthened their group cohesion.

In general, on their return, students are enthusiastic ambassadors for learning a language.

Short-term mobility opportunities can attract students who would not be able to go abroad for longer periods, though Home students have said that even a small study abroad bursary or help with the travel costs would encourage more of them to take up this opportunity.

Follow up

Scaling up the offering may be challenging from the organisation and staffing point of view, however it is hoped to extend the opportunity to other languages in the near future.

As the IWLP modules are offered to students from Schools across the university, the mobility placements can contribute to the internationalisation of students university-wide.

Ensuring inclusion, finding sustainable ways of financially supporting students and resourcing staffing are top priorities for future development.


Placement Modules


Enabling greater access to teaching materials on academic integrity

Kim Shahabudin & Helen Hathaway, Library (Study Advice)                                                                                                         Year of activity 2016/17


The Academic Integrity Toolkit is a suite of research-informed teaching resources, developed in 2012. This project reformatted and revised materials to improve access for tutors and students. Teaching materials were reframed and updated, before republishing online in LibGuides format. The Toolkit was relaunched in November 2016 with a very positive reception from tutors. Since then it has received 8940 views, and has informed key sections of the Study Smart OOC.


  • To improve access to the Academic Integrity Toolkit for staff.
  • To introduce direct access to learning resources on academic integrity for students
  • To revise and update the existing resources
  • To disseminate and raise awareness of the resources among staff


There has been increasing interest in academic integrity as an underpinning principle in academic study, evidenced by the establishment of a Steering Group on Academic Integrity, and its inclusion as an advisory section in Programme Handbooks for 2017-18. However, despite keen reception of the original Toolkit materials, they were little accessed in their original format on Blackboard. A small-scale survey of enrolled users indicated that tutors would like to be able to refer students to resources directly.


The project began by seeking feedback from existing users to inform revisions. This indicated that while revision to the content of the materials was not regarded as necessary, there was a preference for direct student access: this would necessitate revisions of both content and format. A research officer was employed to set up and populate the new LibGuide, considering design and structure, while we carried out revision of the content of the teaching and learning materials. Dissemination took place via a launch event organised with the Centre for Quality Support and Development at which 21 staff participants heard talks on academic integrity and its increasing significance in universities as part of plagiarism prevention strategies, and about project development, before viewing the new version of the Academic Integrity Toolkit. Attendees were given a branded memory stick containing electronic versions of the materials; these were also sent to senior colleagues in teaching and learning who were not able to attend.


The Toolkit was well-received on its relaunch with colleagues noting that they would disseminate to colleagues and students, and use the materials in teaching. A senior colleague suggested that the materials should be “possibly sent to students prior to arrival”. This encouraged the inclusion of academic integrity as a topic for the first of three sections in the Study Smart OOC, developed by the Study Advice team in conjunction with the University’s OOC team as a preparatory course for new undergraduates and launched in Aug 2017. The section has seen strong engagement from the almost 2500 students who have enrolled so far, with a total of 2883 comments on discussion boards including 537 responses to the question, “What does academic integrity mean to you?”


The revision and republishing of the Toolkit was especially timely with interest growing in the teaching of academic integrity as an alternative strategy to minimise academic misconduct: this certainly aided us in our aim of awareness-raising amongst staff. We were also fortunate to have recently subscribed to LibGuides in the Library, and so had experience of what worked with this format to draw on when making materials more engaging and easy to navigate for students. In addition, our research officer had already worked for the Talis Aspire implementation project and brought valuable experience of communicating guidance to students.

One comment gleaned from feedback on the launch event mentioned that it would have been useful to have more practical examples of how academic tutors could use the Toolkit materials in their teaching. While we lacked the resource to add research and development on this topic into the project, it would have been an effective strategy to encourage use of the materials and so would have contributed positively to awareness-raising.

Follow up

Since its relaunch, the Toolkit has received 8940 views with peaks in November 2016 (the month of launch), January 2017 (following feedback from Autumn term assignments) and September 2017 (new entrants including those new undergraduates who may have undertaken the Study Smart OOC). Research undertaken on the project contributed to the design of the Academic Integrity section in the Study Smart OOC.


The Academic Integrity Toolkit (LibGuide):



Generative lab to tackle gender stereotypes and unconscious biases in teaching and learning

Dr Karen Jones & Dr Maria Kambouri-Danos, Institute of Education                                         Year of activity: 2016/17


This entry describes a project which, with funding by the University of Reading Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF), focused on designing an intervention to promote gender equality. Issues of gender stereotyping, sexism and unconscious bias in T&L can affect learners’ educational progress. Our aim was to develop and test the materials for an intervention that will help to alert teachers and those supporting learning, and provide appropriate learning opportunities that will support change.


  • To design materials for an innovative teaching and learning intervention called a ‘Generative Lab’
  • To pilot the Generative Lab during a workshop
  • To engage the workshop participants in becoming progressively more aware of their own unconscious bias and of gender stereotypes


Gender stereotyping and unconscious/implicit bias manifests in education. In higher education there is greater awareness of gender inequality concerning staff, but a lesser focus on T&L.  Problems ranging from ‘lad culture’ on campus, to marked bias against women in doctoral dissertations have been documented. In addition, subject choice is divided by gender, and this can present problems for students studying non-traditional subjects for their gender.  However, these problems manifest long before people arrive in higher education. The significant impact that gender stereotyping and bias can have on young people’s learning, aspirations and achievements is evident from secondary and even primary school years.

A common recommendation is to invest in training to combat gender stereotyping and everyday sexism and to support appropriate behaviour in teaching situations. Based on this, our aim was to develop an intervention that will help educators to de-bias the environment through capacity building that incorporates the unfreeze-change-refreeze approach. We call this intervention a ‘Generative Lab’ to emphasise the aspect of engaging the learner in active participation with a range activities on the given topic.


The Generative Lab was delivered to three different groups, including a pilot session with 20 early years trainee teachers and approximately 2 groups of a total of 25 early years practitioners that attended a workshop on ‘‘Tackling gender stereotypes in early years teaching and learning”, delivered at the Institute of Education Early Years Conference, 2017. Each session included the following activities:

  1. Cartoon strips with scenarios to illustrate unconscious bias
  2. Role play scenarios of gender stereotyping
  3. Action planning and feedback.

The cartoon strips were developed in collaboration with external professional illustrators. Their content highlights and challenges issues of inequality and gender stereotyping; thus, the cartoons were used to initiate discussions and raise awareness. The scenarios were developed by us and given to the participants who were asked to enact them through role play. After brief discussion of each scenario and the ideas involved, the participants were asked to repeat the enactment with a response that would discourage gender stereotyping. During the last activity, participants worked individually or in small groups to generate implementation plans for action that aimed to bring about change in their own teaching and learning context.


The Generative Lab was successful in initiating discussions in relation to unconscious bias and gender stereotypes, and how these might be prevalent in different levels and contexts of T&L. The participants were actively engaged in the activities, including sharing results of previous research, discussions around the cartoons as well as dramatization and action planning. The structure of the Generative Lab helped to constructively and progressively develop awareness of unconscious bias and of gender stereotypes.

The action points developed and the feedback collected at the end suggest that the activities successfully challenged and stimulated revisions in thinking. All participants gained a greater awareness of gender stereotypes, sexism and unconscious bias in T&L. However, some of them still did not feel able or confident enough to address sexism. This shift in awareness though, marks a significant change in mind-set for those previously subscribing to gender blindness. Participants left the session with plans for action to bring about change and refreeze change in institutional space. They are followed up 3-6 months later.


The Generative Lab was experimental, and we took an iterative approach to explore issues, encouraging participants to seek the root cause of a problem systematically and to build capacity and confidence to address not just the symptoms, but to also identify actions to bring about change in educational space.

The comic strips were offered as a non-threatening avenue to raise awareness and facilitated a process where participants became progressively aware of their own unconscious bias and of gender stereotypes prevalent in teaching and learning, to be able to notice and challenge these issues in their everyday work practice. Similarly, the role play activities and the action planning helped participants to think about taking action and putting theory into practice.

Follow up

Further work is required to understand how to best support teaching and learning staff to create a more equitable teaching and learning environment. Future projects could establish if changes in practice occur and if these are sustained over time. Research is also needed to understand factors relating to the organizational climate that enable participants to be receptive to change, plus participants’ perceptions and needs regarding gender diversity and equal opportunities. 




Group work: investigating the requirements of a student resource

Sonia Hood, Study Adviser, Library                                                                                                                                                                        Year of activity: 2015/16


The project explored both the challenges and solutions of assessed group work, from a staff and student perspective. Focus groups and in-depth interviews with undergraduates, postgraduates and staff revealed a number of key challenges such as: confronting ‘difficult’ group members; ensuring fairness; and dealing with varying priorities. A number of solutions were proposed including: careful consideration of the % mark allocated to group work; training on dealing with challenging individuals; more emphasis on self-awareness; and timetabled group work sessions. The project offers a number of recommendations to anyone wishing to improve their students’ ability to engage positively with group work.


  • To explore the challenges and solutions to assessed group work, from a student and staff perspective
  • To offer recommendations that support students to independently solve some of the challenges they face with this form of assessment
  • To create a ‘student reviewed’ bank of group work resources


Group work is an integral part of assessment at university but students rarely arrive equipped with the skills, experience and knowledge to deal with the challenges they face when working in groups. As a result this can be a cause of anxiety for students and also a time consuming intervention for lecturers. Henley Business School (HBS) approached Study Advice for help in supporting their students to deal with the group work challenges they face. Whilst it was accepted that a wide range of open access group work resources were already available, it was felt that students needed help navigating these. In addition, it was felt in order to truly support students with group work we first needed to understand the challenges they face, how they have/intend to overcome these and how best they would like to be supported in doing this. Real Estate and Planning (REP) students were chosen as the sample and focus groups and in-depth interviews were used to explore the perceptions, challenges and proposed solutions for assessed group work.


A student researcher post was developed and an REP student was employed over the summer to evaluate the wealth of open access resources available on group work. This resulted in a folder of group work resources being created and uploaded onto Blackboard.  In addition a pack containing key resources was compiled and handed out to part 1 REP students when commencing their first group work project.

A staff focus group took place in June 2015, where 7 HBS staff members discussed the challenges and solutions to group work from their experience and perspective. Following this, in the autumn term part 1 students from REP were invited to a focus group to discuss their early perceptions of group work at university. In the spring term, 6 students following MSc planning courses contributed to a focus group, discussing the challenges they faced and their proposed solutions. Finally over the course of the spring and summer terms, 8 in-depth interviews were carried out with both undergraduates (UGs) and postgraduates (PGs) following Real Estate and Planning courses to explore their individual experiences with this form of assessment. These interviews and focus groups were then transcribed, analysed and themed into both challenges and solutions.


All three objectives of this study were reached. We now have a bank of resources to support students with group work, available on Blackboard, which can be copied into any course.

Group work student pack
Excerpt from Student Pack




















The initial pack handed out to students proved to be useful for undergraduates, mainly as an aid to focus early group discussions. The research has helped to develop our understanding of the challenges students face and the solutions they feel could be implemented. These are being disseminated in the first instance to those in REP and then to the wider T&L community. It is hoped that these findings will help to improve the effectiveness and experience of group working for a wide variety of students.


The interviews and focus groups revealed the complex challenges associated with group work: not least in dealing with conflict and difficult group members, managing different priorities within the group and the perception of fairness with regards the marking system. Solutions varied between the PG and UG students, though all recognised that effective teams take time to get to know each other informally. Students suggested that informal events could be organised as part of their course to help them through this ‘forming’ stage. PG students also asked for careful consideration of how the mark for group work is allocated (with a higher proportion allocated to individual work) and a penalty imposed as a last resort. More support was requested in dealing with conflict and difficult team members, and the need for more self-reflection from everyone within the group was identified. There are also some simple things we can do to help students with the practicalities of group work, like timetabling group work sessions and  booking rooms at set times for students to use. In terms of tutor support, it was recognized that their time was limited; when it comes to personal issues within a group, speaking to a mentor (like a part 2 student) who could offer confidential, impartial advice would be a preferable option for UGs.

Follow up

Overall, the majority of students recognised the importance and value of group work, not only for future careers but also in the depth and breadth of work they could produce. There are a complex set of challenges that students face in dealing with this form of assessment and this project reveals some solutions that students believe we could implement to help them to deal with issues independently.

Work continues on this project, as at present we are only just starting to disseminate the findings. Whilst the recommendations from this small scale study might not be relevant to all engaged in group work, it is felt that a number of themes and challenges are shared across a variety of disciplines. We would welcome speaking to anyone who is interested in finding out more about this project and how they might benefit from this research.

Final Year Group Based Research Projects

Professor Elizabeth Page and Dr Philippa Cranwell, Chemistry, Food and Pharmacy
Year of activity: 2015-16


Group-based research projects have been introduced into the BSc Chemistry programme for final year students. Small teams of students investigate different aspects of a research problem, each working on a separate strand. The results are combined and overall conclusions drawn. The team-based approach more closely resembles the nature of research in the chemical industry. The approach can be translated to many other disciplines.


  • To provide final year students with the opportunity for open-ended investigative laboratory research.
  • To work as a team to plan and design a suitable approach and experiments to explore the problem.
  • To carry out original research and collate and analyse results.
  • To draw conclusions and present the results both orally and as a dissertation.
  • To develop a variety of key transferable skills required for the workplace.


All accredited Chemistry programmes must contain individual independent investigative work, historically in the form of a final-year research project. Since the rapid expansion of chemistry undergraduate numbers, many departments have moved from laboratory-based projects to literature reviews or short, open-ended practical work. Group projects provide an alternative approach where undergraduates carry out a worthwhile chemical investigation, with the potential of yielding useful results within the restricted time, and with the limited resources available.


A Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) Grant in 2015 allowed us to appoint two undergraduate students to investigate some potential ideas for research projects over the summer of 2015. The students carried out initial trials into a series of research topics in the broad areas of inorganic, organic, physical and analytical chemistry. On the basis of these preliminary investigations a short briefing sheet was drawn up for each research question, to be used as a starting point for the teams.

Final year students on the BSc Chemistry and BSc Applied Chemistry (NUIST) programmes were invited to select areas of preference in chemistry for their final year project. Students were organised into teams of 3-5 students on the basis of project preferences and undertook two short (five week) projects, the first of which acted as a trial run to allow students to become familiar with an independent research environment. Each team was allocated an academic supervisor to whom they reported their results weekly. During the final week of each project team members discussed their results and prepared a presentation. Students were given feedback on the first presentation to help inform the second. The second project was written as a formal report, with each student writing up their individual investigations and the whole team contributing to the introduction and final discussions and conclusion.

Students were assessed on the basis of their individual laboratory notebook, their oral presentation and project report. They were asked to evaluate their peers’ contributions under a variety of categories to produce a factor which could be used to scale any group component marks.


In 2015-2016 a total of 12 team-based projects were carried out in 4 different research areas. As the topics were re-visited (i.e. the same topic used more than once), the second group of students were able to carry on the investigation from where the first group finished.

All projects were successful in producing results that the students were able to analyse and discuss. The value of the results to the research question varied significantly with the team and the nature of the project. Students were not penalised if they worked in a project area that did not easily yield positive results: they were advised that their grades depended upon their input into the project and their oral and written communication skills in presenting the project. In the majority of cases the teams worked well to plan and execute experiments that led to conclusive results.

Although the numbers were relatively small in 2015-2016, the team-based approach reduced academic supervision and training time, as one staff member could supervise a team of students. More results were obtained from the team-based approach than when students worked independently. The research questions had to be selected carefully and some preliminary work done, but despite this some of the projects yielded new results that are publishable. Students improved their team working skills significantly and have ample experiences to discuss at interviews.


The success of each group project depended to a large extent on the individual supervisor and the group dynamics. Ownership of the project by the supervisor led to more successful outcomes and better group dynamics. It was observed that groups of 4 students seemed to work better than 3 or 5, as research problems often break down to comparing A against B, and therefore workload could be more easily divided. Interestingly, students requested one long project in future rather than two short ones because they felt that with a long project they could really make a meaningful impact with their work.

As the project reports were to be submitted shortly before the exam period, some students were anxious to complete their contributions in good time and found it difficult to work with their peers who had a more relaxed approach. Because of the high weighting (40 credits) on the project, we will require individual project reports in future. In addition, combined group reports were difficult to assess fairly, even with peer evaluation.


The work was presented at the 2nd Enhancing Student Learning Through Innovative Scholarship Conference meeting in June 2016.

Development of the Cole Museum resources for outreach and teaching and learning.

 Dr Amanda Callaghan, School of Biological Sciences


Cole Zoology Museum300The Cole Museum of Zoology (the Cole) houses a number of satellite collections for use in outreach, teaching and learning. In 2014 we transferred 50% of the School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES) fossil collection to the Cole and in 2015 acquired the other half. As a result of this Teaching and Learning Development Fund project, most of the fossils and many more Cole specimens and archives have been catalogued and photographed and are now being transferred onto AdLib (a database for the cataloguing and publishing of information on collection objects) for wider use.


  • To improve the use of SAGES fossil/SBS zoology collections in outreach, T&L and research through improved access.
  • To catalogue and organise material, photograph where required and upload onto AdLib.


Around 50% of the University fossil collection was moved to the Cole in the School of Biological Sciences in 2014. This resource is used for teaching palaeontology and is still used by staff in Archaeology (GV2M5 Quaternary Global Climate Change). SBS are now increasingly using this resource in teaching and recently it has been used to teach BI1EZ1 Introduction to Zoology, BI1EAB1 Animal Diversity, BI2BS5 Vertebrate Zoology and BI3EAB8 Palaeozoology. The remaining 50% was moved in 2015 and required cataloguing, along with archival materials. Many of the Cole specimens and all of its archives have not been photographed and were therefore unavailable as images online.


Two UG students and one PhD student were employed, with the added value of two additional volunteers and two academic members of staff to supervise students. Remaining fossil specimens were transferred to the Cole, identified, labelled, photographed, catalogued and stored. Specimen photographs and details are now being uploaded onto the AdLib database by a volunteer. AdLib is used by collections across the University to catalogue and publish information on collection objects. It is accessible to students and staff through the Library website Enterprise.


This will allow staff and students across the university access to the collection.  Because the collection is organized and the catalogue available online, we now have a team of 8 undergraduate volunteers and enthusiasts who are able to work on proofreading and identifying specimens in the catalogue.  In addition to improving access to the collection for use in classes by students of Archaeology and SBS, an added impact of the work is that students are gaining skills in palaeontological curation and a certain level of expertise in zoology and fossil identification. A number of our students are interested in careers in the museum sector and this experience will put them in good stead for a job in this area.


At the end of the project all the fossils have been transferred, photographed and the digital catalogue was transferred online.  Considerable progress was made in identifying specimens and filling in missing taxonomic information. In addition to the fossil work, the opportunity to work in the museum during the summer with a dedicated team allowed us to photograph Cole specimens whilst the photography system was set up. We also engaged a PhD student, Verity Burke, to catalogue and organise the archival material. As a result she instigated a twitter exhibition #ColeEx.


The Cole is an accredited museum praised by the accrediting body (Museums and Libraries and Archives Council – it is now administered by the Arts Council England) for our collection management and collection care. We will now manage the fossil collection appropriately to make it more readily accessible for use and to bring it back to a good curatorial standard. The collection is now available for use in outreach, by colleagues in SBS and Archaeology for classes, for research, as well as by students on school placements to allow the development of new projects.

As a result of this project, we now are able to use the collection in new ways:

  1. Teaching and Learning. The entire fossil teaching collection is now used in teaching BI3EAB1, with students in the class able to use the online catalogue during practicals.
  2.  Research. A third year student is researching our ichthyosaur material for her final year project.
  3.  Engagement. The fossil collection is very popular among our students who are keen to be able to work with the fossils and help us to improve the information associated with each specimen.
  4. Outreach. The fossil collection is available for School visits and has already been used in University outreach activities.






Improving student engagement with assessment and feedback through peer review

Professor Helen Parish, School of Humanities

Year of activity: 2014-15



The project investigated recent research and practice in peer assessment and feedback in order to implement a peer assessment model for use within History, and develop a framework for the adoption of said model in cognate disciplines where evaluation of substantial text-based assignments is an important part of assessment.


  • Present students with well-managed opportunities to engage in feedback and assessment and learn from it.
  • Present staff with access to tried and tested models for implementation that can be used and tailored across disciplines.


The importance of increasing the impact of assessment in feedback and learning is recognised by the University’s teaching and learning enhancement priorities, and is evident in the ‘Engage in Assessment’ and ‘Engage in Feedback’ materials.  The requirement to pursue an agenda for feedback is also highlighted by the expectations of employers that graduates of the University of Reading will be able to assess and evaluate the work of others, by comments on feedback made by University of Reading students in the National Student Survey, and by discussions with potential students on Open Days.


There were five stages to the project:

  1. A literature search on the topic and detailed engagement with recent scholarship, undertaken by the Principal Investigator.
  2. A ‘competitor analysis’, undertaken by a research assistant, looking at the extent that peer feedback is present on Humanities curricula at other institutions.
  3. Development of a model for the trial of peer assessment informed by the previous two stages.
  4. Implementation of this model as a ‘pilot project’ in the Department of History.
  5. Obtaining student feedback on the process and reflection by the Principal Investigator.

The feedback gained during the early stages of the project revealed that students were reluctant to allow their work to be reviewed by their peers, even when anonymised.   This necessitated the envisaged model to be altered, whereby the written work being ‘peer reviewed’ was either from previous cohorts within the Department or alternative sources.

Once the pilot project was developed, there were three stages:

  1. Development of an understanding of marking and assessment criteria. Students read the assessment criteria of their module, and were then tasked with rewriting these in their own words.
  2. Applying these criteria to written work. Students then read a sample essay (not taken from the group), and with reference to the marking criteria, were asked to give a mark to the essay, with a summary of reasons they had come to this judgment.  This was followed by a discussion of the written feedback provided.
  3. Focus group and project review.  It was intended that students would meet to talk about the project, and more general issues to do with assessment and feedback, in the presence of an experienced observer external to the department.


One of the principal benefits of the project was that students became more aware of the marking criteria by which their assignments were assessed, as although they found these clear, few students had actually taken the time to read these before. An additional benefit was that the activity helped develop students’ academic confidence, as they were impelled to adopt a critical attitude to writing within scholarship, and gained experience of promoting their point of view to their peers.


Feedback from questionnaires suggested that students enjoyed the project; that they now had a better understanding of assessment and feedback; that the project had been helpful with the preparation of their own written work; and that they were now more confident in the assessment of their own work prior to submission.

The reluctance of students to submit their own work to review by their peers meant that there was a less direct link between the peer feedback provided and the specific assignment for each module.  By using work from previous cohorts or alternative sources, however, it was possible to get students to engage more willingly with the process of peer review.

The main disappointment was that it proved impossible to gather a large enough group of students to participate in the focus group stage of the project.  This may have been due to the proposed scheduling of the focus groups at a time when students had recently participated in a Departmental Periodic Review and submitted their final coursework of the academic year.  Nevertheless, valuable feedback on the pilot was provided through questionnaires and verbal communication.

It was interesting to observe that students held broad spectrum of ideas about what constituted good work, arising from a lack of understanding about the criteria against which work is marked. From this perspective, the project was valuable, as students were familiarised with the marking criteria and how these applied to written pieces Students were able to look ‘behind the scenes’ at the marking process, with student applying the marking criteria as individuals, but then needing to decide as a group upon a final mark for pieces they were reviewing.

Follow up

Following the pilot project, the use of peer review to engage students in assessment and feedback has been used by other members of staff within the Department of History, with similar success. Other than the specific pieces of work and criteria used for peer review purposes, there was nothing within this project that was specific to the Department of History or School of Humanities, and so this activity could easily be adapted for use in other Departments and Schools across the University.

The peer review approach has been successfully applied within the Department of History to student presentations in seminars. As student presentations are more ‘in the moment’ and designed with a peer audience in mind, students have not expressed the same reticence to have their peers review their work, and those presenting have appreciated receiving immediate feedback.

Exploring modern languages linguistics

Dr Federico Faloppa and Dr Chiara Ciarlo, School of Literature and Languages


12756The project successfully developed an introductory module in general linguistics, with a focus on foreign language specific issues for Part Two students who choose to do a single or joint honours language degree.  Providing a module for the teaching of linguistics to Modern Languages and European Studies students has had many benefits for the students, who report that the module has helped with their study of foreign languages.


  • To determine which linguistics topics Part Two students would have an interest in, and benefit most from, studying in-depth.
  • To design a linguistics course for Modern Languages and European Studies students.
  • Provide students with theoretical knowledge which they can transfer to the study and understanding of other languages.
  • Provide students with skills that will improve their employability.


Previously, the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies had offered only individual language tutorials or modules in the history of languages, and language in society, but little aimed at providing a general theoretical linguistic background of the languages that are taught.

Feedback on the language modules from previous years highlighted that a number of Modern Languages and European Studies students desired linguistics training. Although students were able to take courses offered by the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, these were only of partial help to language students, as these courses mainly focus on the English language, and are not designed to have a supporting role in the study of foreign languages. As a result, it was necessary to design and pilot a linguistics course for Modern Languages and European Studies students, including core linguistic principles and more language-specific issues, with an eye to recurrent errors in the students’ language production on which they would be able to reflect.


The first six months of the project were devoted to the gathering and analysis of resources in order to carry out research activity on aspects of the teaching of linguistics in modern foreign languages degrees.

Research activity was conducted to compare the level of linguistics provision in modern foreign languages degrees in the UK, and to establish what areas of linguistics are given more prominence in modern foreign languages curricula. The results of this research contributed to the creation of a network of experts in the field of the linguistics of modern foreign languages, who were later invited to present their views on the topic in a workshop held at the University of Reading.

For the one-day workshop, experts in the field of the linguistics of modern foreign languages were invited to present their latest research. This event was addressed to all staff and students within Modern Languages and European Studies, English Language and Applied Linguistics, the International Study and Language Institute, and the Institute of Education, in order to generate a shared discussion on the integration between language study and the study of language.

These activities fed into the creation of a taster session for phonetics, phonology and syntax, to which Part One students were invited to attend. At the end of the event, students were asked to give their feedback on the relevance, usefulness, or difficulty of what was explained during the taster sessions. This feedback was valuable for helping finalise the pilot module description.

The pilot module description was then approved, and the new module was taught during the 2013-14 academic year.


The project was successful, as it achieved its principle aim of creating a module to teach linguistics for Modern Languages and European Studies students, with the course structure and content having been established through a consultative process in order to ensure that students are provided with a module that meets their expectations of a linguistics course, and is able to provide students with a theoretical understanding of linguistics that should support their learning of modern languages, and with skills that will more generally enhance their employability.

Teaching linguistics to Modern Languages and European Studies students has been of great benefit to the students. Teaching staff within the Department have noted that students taking linguistics modules have more confidence and accuracy in their pronunciation when speaking foreign languages, and generally make fewer errors.


Beyond its use to refine the module that would be taught, the taster session was beneficial as it highlighted the benefits that students receive from taster sessions with regard to their making module choices: as a result, the School explored the possibility of providing taster sessions for students to guide them in choosing their modules. Additionally, the provision of such taster sessions is valuable as it provides information on student expectations for module convenors, who can plan and design their modules so that they better meet these expectations.

The success of the project lead to the establishment of a Language and Linguistics Workgroup in order to investigate the implementation and coordination of linguistics teaching within the School.

Students have found the formal learning of linguistics very useful for their study of Modern Languages. With a better understanding of linguistic theory, students are better able to appreciate the errors they make within their own study. Students appreciate the challenge of learning linguistics, but some aspects, for example phonetics and syntax, are very technical, and students seemed to find these the most difficult. To help students meet the challenge, different approaches to teaching these topics have been utilised within the the module, such as creating visual representations of syntax, or using information technology in the teaching of phonetics.

Follow up

The pilot year of teaching the module was greatly successful, and as a result the opportunity to learn linguistics was opened up to all students within the School of Modern Languages and European Studies. Whereas the pilot module was a Part Two module, the module has now been redesigned to allow its provision at Part One. By having the module provided at Part One, students are now able to obtain a strong foundation in the linguistic theory that underpins their study of a modern language before they go on to more in-depth study in Parts Two and Three. Additionally, while teaching linguistics at Part One requires some aspects of the module to be simplified, it is able to contribute to a pathway in Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, building up students’ linguistic knowledge over the course of their undergraduate study.

The project has also opened up the possibility for interdisciplinary cooperation: bilingual students from Modern Languages and European Studies collaborated on a project with Neurolinguistics students from the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences.