The tricky issue of word count equivalence

The challenges of managing media rich assessments, or managing student choice in assessment, has been evident in higher education for as long as I have been employed in the sector, and probably a lot longer. Back in 2004, when I worked on the Ultraversity Programme, the course team had an underpinning vision which sought to: enable creativity; encourage negotiation of assessment formats such that the outputs were of use; and, develop the digital capabilities of students (a form of assessment as learning). We encouraged mixed media assessment submissions for all modules. At this time we debated ‘the word count issue’ and emerged with a pragmatic view that alternative media should be broadly equivalent (and yes that is fuzzy, but ultimately this helps develop judgment skills of students themselves).

In the HEA accredited PgC in Teaching and Supporting Learning that I now manage, we assess using a patchwork media portfolio. Effectively there are five components (including an evaluation of assessment and feedback practices, a review of approaches used in teaching or supporting learning and a review of inclusive practices used) plus there is a stitching piece (a reflection on learning). The assessment brief describes what the students should show, but it is not prescriptive on the precise format. Each element has a word guide, but this should be used by those working with alternative media as a guide to the size of the output and the effort they apply.

wordcount

Where students opt for media rich formats, they are asked to decide on equivalence. Close contact in class sessions provides a guiding hand on judgment, critically with peer input (‘yes, that sounds fair’). Techniques to assess equivalence include taking a rough ‘words per minute’ rate and then scaling up. I have had other items such as posters and PowerPoints, again, I ask them to use their own approximation based on effort. Because the students in this particular programme are themselves lecturers in HE, there is a degree of professional reflection applied to this issue. We don’t ask for transcripts or supplementary text when an individual submits an audio or video format, because it can add considerable work and it may be a deterrent to creativity.

Media experimentation within this programme is encouraged because of the transformative effect it can have on individuals who then feel free to pass on less traditional, more creative methods to their students. I asked one of my students to share their thoughts having just submitted a portfolio of mixed media. Their comments are below:

My benefits from using media were;

  • Opportunity to develop skills
  • Creativity
  • More applied to the role I have as a teacher than a written report would have been
  • Gave ideas to then roll out into my own assessment strategies, to make these more authentic for students
  • Enjoyable and I felt more enthused to tackle the assignment elements

But I wouldn’t say it was quicker to produce, as it takes a lot of advanced planning. And, it was tricky to evidence / reference, which is a requisite for level 7. This is where I fell down a little.

I judged equivalence with a 60-100 words per minute time frame for narrative, and / or, I wrote the piece in full (with word count) and then talked it through. I think the elements that I chose to pop into video were those that were more reflective, and lent themselves better to this approach. With the more theoretical components, where I wasn’t feeling creative or brave enough to turn it into something spangly, I stuck with the written word. The exception to this was the learning design patch, where I wanted to develop particular skills by using a different approach.

This student’s comments very much match up with comments made back in 2009, by Ultraversity students who reported “without exception, felt that they had improved their technical skills through the use of creative formats in assessment” (Arnold, Thomson, Williams, 2009, p159).   Looking back at this paper I was reminded that a key part of managing a mixed picture of assessment is through the criteria, we said “In looking at rich media, the assessor needs be very clear about the assessment criteria and the role that technology has in forming any judgments, so as to avoid the ‘wow’ factor of quirky technology use. At the same time he/she must balance this with the reward of critical decision-making and appropriateness in the use of technology. Staff and student awareness of this issue as well as internal and external quality assurance guards against this occurrence” (p161). This is exactly the approach taken within the PgC Teaching and Supporting Learning. Tightly defined assessment criteria have been very important in helping to apply consistent assessment judgments across different types of submission.

If we want to receive identically formatted items, which all address the learning outcomes using the same approach, then of course mandating a single format with a strict word count is the way to go. But if we want to encourage an attitude to assessment which encourages creativity in new lecturers, and which acts as a development vehicle for their own digital skills, then we must reduce concerns about word counts and encourage junior colleagues to develop and use their professional judgment in this matter. The student quote above shows the thoughtful approach taken by one student to address the issue for themself.

Frustratingly, even by using word count as the reference point for parity we may ‘other’ some of the more creative approaches that we seek to encourage and normalize, but ultimately wordage has long been the currency of higher education. It is good to see some universities being pro-active in setting out a steer for equivalence so that individual staff do not feel that they are being maverick with word counts when seeking to encourage creativity.

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