Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Formative assessment in tertiary teaching

Having just finished my marking (Yay!), it is timely to pause and reflect on how marking intersects with teaching. At 100 level, I gave formative feedback on eportfolio entries, and marked online discussion. At 200 level, I marked discussion and 4 small module tasks. At 300 level, I marked students on their leadership of discussion and an essay. I also marked a masters dissertation. Whew!

As a primary teacher, I take it for granted that assessment is integral to learning, and that the point of marking student work is to give them feedback to help them to improve the work. (I do understand the summative and credentialling functions that sit uneasily alongside assessment for formative purposes).  Of course, feedback opportunities arise outside of a 'marking' context in everyday interactions, and this is well established and researched by key figures like Black & WiliamClarke, Timperley, Hattie, and Waikato's own Bell & Cowie.

However, it sometimes seems as if this thinking is quite new to a tertiary context, where there are still some strange ideas around what constitutes teaching and what the point of assessment is. At the same time, there is a dawning realisation that teaching is NOT a 50-minute lecture once a week, or a block of transmission followed by a slightly more interactive lab or tutorial (often involving explaining assignments to students, aka teaching to the test). It follows that the most effective approach to assessment for learning does NOT involve 2-3 assignments, graded with (sometimes minimal) written comments, and/or perhaps an exam at the end of semester.

A shift in thinking has teachers experimenting with flipped classrooms, but I am still unsure what needs to be flipped in a primary school classroom, or in our online classes for that matter. Perhaps we have always been topsy turvy! Does our assessment need to be flipped?

Our institution is currently engaged in a curriculum enhancement project, working through some of the issues around quality tertiary pedagogy and assessment that supports student learning. One of the important points made by our DVC is that we need to be assessing formatively and we need to be finding out what students need help with at an earlier stage in their study.  I am encouraged by these developments.

I am reasonably happy with my approach to formative assessment and am pretty confident that I do this well online in particular. Of course there is always room for improvement so this post looks at what I am doing with formative assessment in my online tertiary teaching at this point, and what I need to consider and change for the future, as well as raising questions I am still pondering.

Some ways my colleagues and I integrate feedback opportunities are:
- working in a blended fashion where possible, combining f2f meetings with online classes, and asynchronous discussion with synchronous and multi-media opportunities to converse and clarify ideas
- teaching through online discussion - using discussion as an forum for challenging misconceptions, prompting further thinking, and reassuring students who are desperate to know they are 'on the right track'
- importantly, encouraging students to join this effort by promoting discussion as a tutorial opportunity, where students can voice uncertainties and actively seek and give feedback
**For this to work, both staff and students must be active in online discussion, but this can be managed**
- arranging sharing of eportfolio entries prior to grading and alternating between teacher feedback and peer feedback
- requiring students to self assess pieces of work, and then giving feedback on their self assessment
- sharing criteria with students, and looking for opportunities to co-construct criteria with students
- breaking the criteria down into skills and practising those skills on campus - e.g., higher order skills like how to critique can be demonstrated, rehearsed and scaffolded in class
- responding to student work in a timely manner, with clear written feedback, individualised and designed to explain a) why the work received the grade it did; and b) how to improve upon the work for next time around
- taking time to follow up with students who are at risk - via extra reassurance, advice, points to address next time around, opportunities for resubmission, and individual appointments
- podcasting general feedback. Following an assignment, I am trying to summarise key areas of concern and to present a mini-lecture targeting those aspects, via Panopto
- directing students to other sources of help - e.g., library tools in particular

What could we do better?
- It is easy to get trapped in a mindset where we think we can only assess the students after we have taught them some content, but this delays the opportunity to give formative feedback. As our DVC noted, most courses do not assess student work until 6 weeks into semester and some students do not know they are failing in their studies until 9 weeks on. We need to see what students can do at an earlier point in time, to teach and guide their progress and to direct them to extra help where needed. To some extent we do this in our 100 level class where the students give a very early presentation in class. I am happy that the early sharing of eportfolio entries also makes this particular class a good example of formative assessment. In other classes, I can see how students are developing their thinking via their early discussion contributions.
However, in some classes, I think I need to require earlier submission of an assessment task so that I can give feedback at an earlier point in time. I'm going to shift one of the 200 level tasks to the end of week 3, to build earlier feedback into our communication technologies option paper.

Some of my colleagues give oral feedback by meeting with each student f2f to discuss assignments, or by podcasting feedback to each student. I am mindful of the workload implications of this, and of the danger of creating over-dependence. Similarly, inviting students to submit drafts for feedback can be a time-consuming game of mastery learning, in my experience.

  • How do we reconcile the desire and imperative to support students with the equally powerful desire that they learn to think for themselves?
  • How do we provide fair and transparent criteria without falling into a reductionist checklist mentality?
  • How do we create manageable assessment for learning?

I'm interested in hearing what you do - in a tertiary context, or in any other sector, and I welcome input from students. What kind of assessment do you need to support your learning?

No comments:

Post a Comment