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!

Course level assessment – nice idea, but what does it really mean?

It is increasingly clear that thinking about curriculum in the unit of ‘the course’ rather than the unit of ‘the module is conducive to cohesive course design. It avoids repetition, ensures the assessment journey makes sense to the student and can make feedback meaningful as one task is designed to link to the next. I have not found much  in the literature on course level assessment; while it is advocated in principle amongst educational development communities, it is perhaps less clear what course level assessment actually looks like.

I can see three possibilities, though there may be more. These conceptions are described as if delivered through the modular frameworks which remain the dominant framework for programmes. Any comments on other approaches would be very welcome.

Type 1: Compound assessment

Imagine two modules being taught on entirely discrete themes. Within them might be learning about terminology, key theories, processes, and calculations. Within the modular framework they may be taught entirely independently. In such a model there is nowhere in the curriculum where these skills can be overtly combined. A third module could be introduced which draws upon learning from module one and module two. Of course in reality it may be five modules drawn upon in a sixth compound module.

By example, a module focused upon business strategy may be taught entirely separately from a module on economics. Under such a scenario students may never get to consider how changes in the economy influence strategy, the associated tactics and the need for responsive planning. It is these compound skills, abilities and levels of professional judgment that the course (not the modules) seek to develop. One way of addressing this limitation is to provide a third module which draws together real business scenarios and concentrates on encouraging students to combine their knowledge. A ‘compound’ module could be based around case studies and real world scenarios, it may be limited in its ‘indicative content’ and leave a degree of openness to draw more flexibly on what is happening in the current external environment. Open modules can be uncomfortable and liberating in equal measure for the tutor, as there is a less familiar script. It might concentrate on the development of professional behaviours rather than additional content.The module might have timetabled slots, or could take the form of a one off exercise, field trip or inquiry. Teaching would be more facilitative rather than content/delivery led.

One of the challenges with such a module is that many tutors may be reluctant to give over credits to what seems to be a content free or light module. Going back to basics though, graduates are necessarily more than empty vessels filled with ‘stuff’. If we look at the course level and identify what we want to produce in our outcomes, and what the aims of our programmes actually are, then the flexible compound module fits well as an opportunity for fusing knowledge and developing competent, confident, early professionals. When knowledge is free and ubiquitous online, acting as a global external hard disk, we need to look at the graduates we build and challenge any view that higher education is primarily about the transfer of what the lecturer knows to the student. Surely the compound skills of researching the unfamiliar, combining knowledge from different areas, and making decisions with incomplete data in a moving environment are much more important. The compound module is an opportunity to facilitate learning which alights with the course level outcomes sought.

This type of course level learning and assessment undoubtedly requires an appreciation of the skills, attitudes, values and behaviours that we wish to foster in students and it needs confidence in the tutor to facilitate rather than transmit.

Type 2: Shared  assessment

The next way that I can conceive a form of course level assessment is more mechanistic. Take two modules (module one and module two, taught separately); to bring about efficiencies, the assessment of each module is undertaken within the same assignment, activity or exam. It may be an exam with two parts one for each module; it may be a presentation which is viewed by two assessors, each reviewing a separate aspect of content or it could be an assignment which has areas of attention clearly marked for each module. The education benefits of this are, in my view, much less obvious than for type 1, nevertheless students may see some links between the parts of modules in taking such an approach. The shared assessment must be designed to make clear which aspect relates to which module or else a student could be penalised or rewarded twice for the same points. Under such an approach it is conceivable to pass one element and fail the other. I remain to be convinced of the real benefits of this approach which feels like surface level ‘joined up-ness’.

Type 3: Combined assessment 

The term combined assessment is used here to describe an approach which assesses two modules through a single meaningful strategy. If there are two fifteen credit modules, one on mathematics for engineers and one on product design, an assessment which uses knowledge from each taught unit can be drawn upon to pass a single assessment – for example via a design and build exercise. The assessment subsumes both modules, the two elements are integrated (in contrast to the shared assessment approach) and there are potential marking efficiencies. Without clear attribution of marks to one or the other module it may be tricky when a student fails; what do they restudy? But presumably a tutor would be able to advise where the limitations of the performance are and which unit would be usefully revisited. In some cases it may be both. In reality this approach may be little different than having a large module with two themes contained within it.

So they were my three ideas for programme level assessment but I am convinced that there are other ways of achieving this in a meaningful way. The suitability of each approach will depend on what the course team want to achieve, but clearly the benefits of the compound assessment approach are very different from a shared or combined strategy.


permalink jigsaw header image courtesy of Yoel Ben-Avraham under Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/3545249463

Learning transitions and playing with concept map

In an attempt to unscramble my own thoughts and make them remain in my head longer than the time it takes to type and send I have embarked upon a concept mapping exercise. So taking a reply I made earlier to a forum question, and concept mapping it, it was useful but remarkably difficult. Its tricky to build links and annotate without over-crowding. A fine art and more practice needed. Tips welcome!

So, the question – how do transitions affect new comers to higher education And what might be done to help … ?

Secondary school students have often been engaged in surface learning which has been cultivated by a climate of testing and a grade facing culture (Hussey and Smith 2010). The learning habits and cultures of a secondary school are very different than most HEIs where large class sizes exist (Cook and Leckey 1999) and there is an expectation of autonomy (Hussey and Smith 2010) – a transition is needed to thrive in this new environment (a transition of self and in learning approach). In terms of self-concept students may go from being confident amongst a small group to feeling disorientated by their new place in the bigger order. At the same time as needing to undertake transitions in their approach to learning they may be undergoing great shifts in their personal life from being dependent to being independent as they move locations and away from family. Transitions are essential to learning and may occur on a number of fronts – in knowledge, in learning orientation, in social dimensions (Hussey and Smith 2010) and in epistemologies (Chan, Ho et al. 2011). First year attrition of students is high (Beaty, Gibbs et al. 1997; Cook and Leckey 1999; Hussey and Smith 2010). It seems little wonder given the multi-faceted transitions. Such transitions are more complex for first generation learners who face added challenges.

To facilitate these transitions a number of recommendations emerge from the literature:

· Induction – induction for students should address student expectations such that learners can ‘see’ the transitions ahead (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· Monitoring – so student transitions are not hidden from staff and can be engaged with positively and appropriately. Montitoring ensures teachers are not surprised at the end of a course when transitions have not occurred as anticipated (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Avoiding a crammed curriculum – to provide space for deep engagement such that time for deep learning is made (Cousin 2006; Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Formative assessment – to enable students to develop an understanding of the expectations and allow them to adapt on their journey ahead of high stakes assessment (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Progression flexibility – more radically, student programmes could be undertaken over a longer period of time where an individual’s transition path requires, when they are not ready to move on at the speed of the academic calendar (Hussey and Smith 2010)
· Promote study skills for higher education (ideally before arrival) such that students have to tools to adapt (Cook and Leckey 1999)
· A culture of support where disorientation or turmoil is OK (Cousin 2006)
· Ensure student’s make good course choices which hold their engagement (Jansen and Suhre 2010).

While study skills are suggested as being important, their role may be less significant than the process of aligning courses to student requirements (Jansen and Suhre 2010). In ensuring good choices of programme are made, students may develop higher levels of buy-in and therefore be more prepared to undertake active involvement in learning (which, in turn, is particularly helpful to the surface – deep learning transition (Atherton 2011)).

For first generation students there may be additional or exacerbated challenges. Self-concept lies at the heart of many transitions. First generation students may have a different self concept (perhaps in confidence, beliefs and self-worth) than those who have been socialized in to HE by family. The may feel that they do not belong (Mehta, Newbold et al. 2011).

Cultural changes may be exacerbated for first generation students. HE has its own culture and even language. For students who are first generation the newness of this culture will be starker since exposure to the language and rituals of HE may have been nil. Outreach programmes (from HE to school and induction may help).

According to Mehta, Newbold et al (2011) first generation students “enter college less prepared to succeed but also have greater time demands and financial commitments”. The distractions of financial pressures, part time jobs etc may be a challenge for some first generation students especially when they are immersed in so many transitions, and forming new learning habits.

Care must be taken not to over-generalise first-gen students in to one category though, since in itself this category represents great diversity of culture, class and values. For example, first generation students from a work-based background may face different self-concept issues than school leavers (as inferred by Hussey and Smith 2010)

Broadly the notion of personalizing provision and induction to individual student need may be an approach to facilitate transition. However particular attention may need to be offered to financial support, pace (in response to financial and emotional transitions), integration (social) and the management of expectations.

Much better perhaps to see it like this

concept map screen shot (section on transitions)

 

I suspect work on transitions could usefully inform personal development programmes as well as induction.

Atherton, J. S. (2011). “Learning and teaching: Approaches to study: Deep and surface learning.” Retrieved 3 August 2011, from http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/deepsurf.htm.
Beaty, L., G. Gibbs, et al. (1997). Learning orientations and study contracts. The experience of learning. D. H. F. Marton, & N. Entwistle. Edinburgh, Scotland, Scottish Academic Press.
Chan, N.-M., I. T. Ho, et al. (2011). “Epistemic beliefs and critical thinking of Chinese students.” Learning and Individual Differences 21(1): 67-77.
Cook, A. and J. Leckey (1999). “Do Expectations Meet Reality? A survey of changes in first-year student opinion.” Journal of Further & Higher Education 23(2): 157.
Cousin, G. (2006). “An introduction to threshold concepts.” Planet(no. 17): 4-5.
Hussey, T. and P. Smith (2010). “Transitions in higher education.” Innovations in Education & Teaching International 47(2): 155-164.
Jansen, E. P. W. A. and C. J. M. Suhre (2010). “The effect of secondary school study skills preparation on first-year university achievement.” Educational Studies 36(5): 569-580.
Mehta, S. S., J. J. Newbold, et al. (2011). “WHY DO FIRST-GENERATION STUDENTS FAIL?” College Student Journal 45(1): 20-35.