Dr Madeleine Davies and Michael Lyons, School of Literature and Languages
The Department of English Literature (DEL) has run two student focus groups and two whole-cohort surveys as part of our Teaching and Learning Development Fund‘Diversifying Assessments’ project. This is the second of two T&L Exchange entries on this topic. Click here for the first entry which outlines how the feedback received from students indicates that their module selection is informed by the assessment models that are used by individual modules. Underpinning these decisions is an attempt to avoid the ‘stress and anxiety’ that students connect with exams. The surprise of this second round of focus groups and surveys is the extent to which this appears to dominate students’ teaching and learning choices.
- The focus groups and surveys are used to gain feedback from DEL students about possible alternative forms of summative assessment to our standard assessed essay + exam model. This connects with the Curriculum Framework in its emphasis on Programme Review and also with the aims of the Assessment Project.
- These forms of conversations are designed to discover student views on the problems with existing assessment patterns and methods, as well as their reasons for preferring alternatives to them.
- The conversations are also being used to explore the extent to which electronic methods of assessment can address identified assessment problems.
Having used focus groups and surveys to provide initial qualitative data on our assessment practices, we noticed a widespread preference for alternatives to traditional exams (particularly the Learning Journal), and decided to investigate the reasons for this further. The second focus group and subsequent survey sought to identify why the Learning Journal in particular is so favoured by students, and we were keen to explore whether teaching and learning aims were perceived by students to be better achieved via this method than by the traditional exam. We also took the opportunity to ask students what they value most in feedback: the first focus group and survey had touched on this but we decided this time to give students the opportunity to select four elements of feedback which they could rank in order or priority. This produced more nuanced data.
- A second focus group was convened to gather more detailed views on the negative attitudes towards exams, and to debate alternatives to this traditional assessment method.
- A series of questions was asked to generate data and dialogue.
- A Survey Monkey was circulated to all DEL students with the same series of questions as those used for the focus group in order to determine whether the focus group’s responses were representative of the wider cohort.
- The Survey Monkey results are presented below. The numbers refer to student responses to a category (eg. graphic 1, 50 students selected option (b). Graphic 2 and graphic 5 allowed students to rank their responses in order or priority.
- Whilst only 17% in the focus group preferred to keep to the traditional exam + assessed essay method, the survey found the aversion to exams to be more prominent. 88% of students preferred the Learning Journal over the exam, and 88% cited the likelihood of reducing stress and anxiety as a reason for this preference.
- Furthermore, none of the survey respondents wanted to retain the traditional exam + assessed essay method, and 52% were in favour of a three-way split between types of assessment; this reflects a desire for significant diversity in assessment methods.
- We find it helpful to know precisely what students want in terms of feedback: ‘a clear indication of errors and potential solutions’ was the overwhelming response. ‘Feedback that intersects with the Module Rubric’ was the second highest scorer (presumably a connection between the two was identified by students).
- The students in the focus group mentioned a desire to choose assessment methods within modules on an individual basis. This may be one issue in which student choice and pedagogy may not be entirely compatible (see below).
- Assessed Essay method: the results seem to indicate that replacing an exam with a second assessed essay is favoured across the Programme rather than being pinned to one Part.
The results in the ‘Feedback’ sections are valuable for DEL: they indicate that clarity, diagnosis, and solutions-focused comments are key. In addressing our feedback conventions and practices, this input will help us to reflect on what we are doing when we give students feedback on their work.
The results of the focus group and of the subsequent survey do, however, raise some concerns about the potential conflict between ‘student choice’ and pedagogical practice. Students indicate that they not only want to avoid exams because of ‘stress’, but that they would also like to be able to select assessment methods within modules. This poses problems because marks are in part produced ‘against’ the rest of the batch: if the ‘base-line’ is removed by allowing students to choose assessment models, we would lack one of the main indicators of level.
In addition, the aims of some modules are best measured using exams. Convenors need to consider whether a student’s work can be assessed in non-exam formats but, if an exam is the best test of teaching and learning, it should be retained, regardless of student choice.
If, however, students overwhelmingly choose non-exam-based modules, this would leave modules retaining an exam in a vulnerable position. The aim of this project is to find ways to diversify our assessments, but this could leave modules that retain traditional assessment patterns vulnerable to students deselecting them. This may have implications for benchmarking.
It may also be the case that the attempt to avoid ‘stress’ is not necessarily in students’ best interests. The workplace is not a stress-free zone and it is part of the university’s mission to produce resilient, employable graduates. Removing all ‘stress’ triggers may not be the best way to achieve this.
- DEL will convene a third focus group meeting in the Spring Term.
- The co-leaders of the ‘Diversifying Assessments’ project will present the findings of the focus groups and surveys to DEL in a presentation. We will outline the results of our work and call on colleagues to reflect on the assessment models used on their modules with a view to volunteering to adopt different models if they think this appropriate to the teaching and learning aims of their modules
- This should produce an overall assessment landscape that corresponds to students’ request for ‘three-way’ (at least) diversification of assessment.
- The new landscape will be presented to the third focus group for final feedback.
With thanks to Lauren McCann of TEL for sending me the first link which includes a summary of students’ responses to various types of ‘new’ assessment formats.
Conclusions (May 2018)
The ‘Diversifying Assessment in DEL’ TLDF Mini-Project revealed several compelling reasons for reflecting upon assessment practice within a traditional Humanities discipline (English Literature):
- Diversified cohort: HEIs are recruiting students from a wide variety of socio-cultural, economic and educational backgrounds and assessment practice needs to accommodate this newly diversified cohort.
- Employability: DEL students have always acquired advanced skills in formal essay-writing but graduates need to be flexible in terms of their writing competencies. Diversifying assessment to include formats involving blog-writing, report-writing, presentation preparation, persuasive writing, and creative writing produces agile students who are comfortable working within a variety of communication formats.
- Module specific attainment: the assessment conventions in DEL, particularly at Part 2, have a standardised assessment format (33% assessed essay and 67% exam). The ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project revealed the extent to which module leaders need to reflect on the intended learning outcomes of their modules and to design assessments that are best suited to the attainment of them.
- Feedback: the student focus groups convened for the ‘Diversifying Assessment’ project returned repeatedly to the issue of feedback. Conversations about feedback will continue in DEL, particularly in relation to discussions around the Curriculum Framework.
- Digitalisation: eSFG (via EMA) has increased the visibility of a variety of potential digital assessment formats (for example, Blackboard Learning Journals, Wikis and Blogs). This supports diversification of assessment and it also supports our students’ digital skills (essential for employability).
- Student satisfaction: while colleagues should not feel pressured by student choice (which is not always modelled on academic considerations), there is clearly a desire among our students for more varied methods of assessment. One Focus Group student argued that fees had changed the way students view exams: students’ significant financial investment in their degrees has caused exams to be considered unacceptably ‘high risk’. The project revealed the extent to which Schools need to reflect on the many differences made by the new fees landscape, most of which are invisible to us.
- Focus Groups: the Project demonstrated the value of convening student focus groups and of listening to students’ attitudes and responses.
- Impact: one Part 2 module has moved away from an exam and towards a Learning Journal as a result of the project and it is hoped that more Part 2 module convenors will similarly decide to reflect on their assessment formats. The DEL project will be rolled out School-wide in the next session to encourage further conversations about assessment, feedback and diversification. It is hoped that these actions will contribute to Curriculum Framework activity in DEL and that they will generate a more diversified assessment landscape in the School.