Conference Reflections: Harper Adams University Learning & Teaching Conference 2017

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Last week was the third Harper Adams Learning and Teaching Conference. This annual event brings together colleagues from across the institution, alongside colleagues from partner organisations in, and beyond, the UK. The conference was jam-packed with awesomeness! Although I couldn’t get to everything, the sessions that I did attend were informative and motivating.

Professor Tansy Jessop started off by inspiring a ‘nuclear climb down’ on assessment, where together teaching staff agree to summatively assess less. The shift away from too much summative assessment, Tansy reminded us, only succeeds if we collectively mean it. If some tutors are stealthily continuing to over-assess, then inevitably students will direct their attention to these activities at the expense of others. She talked about relinquishing assessment driven pedagogies of control, to a curriculum driven more by learning.
The keynote also brought some pragmatic suggestions of what staff can do by way of formative feedback strategies. I sensed a quiet wave of ‘Oh yeh’ moments around the room as the ideas were really workable. Suggestions included:

  • A policy approach of less assessments (the coordinated climb down)
  • Use of public spaces, like blogs, to collate ongoing learning and reading (the audience drives meaningful engagement)
  • Asking students to design multi choice questions
  • Asking students to bring along sources to class and then through group discussion arriving at the ‘best’ sources
  • Working with journal papers to write abstracts or deduce ideas in papers based on abstracts.

My own ‘aha’ moment was to rename every formative assessment, simply as activities that drive learning. I think I knew this already, but it’s easy to drown in terminology and metrics that cloud definitions and purpose. The keynote also highlighted how we might make the most of formative feedback. Humorously critiquing some well used feedback structures (like the feedback sandwich), Tansy suggested that, essentially, we need to become more dialogic around feedback. We need to find ways to have conversations, find out what feedback is useful, encourage students to solicit the right types of feedback and to take control of their learning.

In one of the workshop sessions the brilliantly enthusiastic Professor Kay Sambell encouraged us to consider how we use exemplars. Some sharing around the room threw up some different practical approaches, including using exemplars to: demonstrate the underpinning features of academic writing (e.g. What is involved in making an argument); take the stress out of understanding a task to free up headspace for more detailed and creative aspects of the task, essentially this is about demystifying the task; provide a process of socialisation in to the academic requirements of assessment; and, to provide a starting point. We also discussed some of the limitations of using exemplars, which included: Triggering worry in students who may believe standards set to be unachievable; stifling creativity as students might only see one way to complete the task; and, risking students believing the exemplar to be the finished article rather than a finished article. Moving on from our evaluation, we identified different things to do with exemplars. We were united in agreeing that just giving examples would do little in itself to help students. Active use of exemplars was shown to include such things as:

  • Peer marking to familiarise with task requirements
  • Discussion of different exemplars
  • Rank ordering exemplars
  • Analysing ‘fail’ grade work to help understand what should be avoided

Decisions about how to use exemplars included whether to annotate, whether to provide full or partial exemplars, and whether to use student work only or to consider tutor generated work too. By the end of this session my ‘note to self’ was that looking at weaker work in depth was a valuable step in working with exemplars. It provides a window in to the assessment process for students, it can help them avoid common pitfalls and it can massively raise awareness of issues of academic practice.

Rebekah Gerard’s poster was a great complement to Kay’s session. Bex shows how we can really use live exemplars in a workshop session to improve exam technique. She used a technique called ‘pass the problem’ and her PgC action research showed how students experienced this strategy.  Her poster shows the technique she used for ease of replicability:

Dr. Jaqueline Potter, from Keele University, shared her analysis of teaching excellence award nominations which had led to a better understanding of what qualities students value in staff. The overwhelming message was about kindliness. Whilst students want constructive, joined up and useful feedback, they really want it as a personal, kindly interaction. How to be kind is quite a different matter, but presumably remembering what it was to be a student would go a good way to help to keep an empathetic mindset. After completing our in-house PgC in Teaching and `supporting Learning many colleagues report that their best learning is in the process of being a student again and gaining an understanding of the stresses, strains and liminality of this process. Perhaps to embody the kindness that Jackie’s research has highlighted, we should all be eternal students. My note to self here is to follow Jackie’s lead and analyse the scheme data I hold on teaching excellence – or ask what do students value?

Jane Headley and Rebecca Payne’s session on exemplars was a great lot of fun! By offering a task to us (the task was – getting your team through a piece of A5 paper) and giving each group a different experience with an exemplar, we were able to feel and experience the use of exemplars. Our team had an exemplar in full, but as a team who wanted to be original (I was just happy to pass, but others wanted to excel) we decided to ditch knowledge of the exemplar and add our own twist. The result was redefining team (after all it didn’t say a human version of your team) and to create a stop motion video. This first hand experience showed me that exemplars can show students that a task is possible and that it can then free up the creative mind to do the task differently. Working in a team, and with an enjoyable task, simply added to the creativity. This point too is something we would do well to remember!

For posterity I have retained a conference programme.

LT_Conference_2017 programme

The only bad thing about the day is not being able to get to all of the sessions. Luckily I have previously heard the other speakers and they are all awesome!

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