Quick notes: Ian Pirie on assessment

Ian Pirie Asst Principal for Learning Developments at University of Edinburgh came out to Heriot-Watt yesterday to talk about some assessment and feedback initiatives at UoE.  The background ideas motivating what they have been doing are not new, and Ian didn’t say that they were, they’re centred around the pedagogy of assessment & feedback as learning, and the generally low student satisfaction relating to feedback shown though the USS. Ian did make a very compelling argument about the focus of assessment: he asked whether we thought the point of assessment was

  1. to ensure standards are maintained [e.g. only the best will pass]
  2. to show what students have learnt,
    or
  3. to help students learn.

The responses from the room were split 2:1 between answers 2 and 3, showing progress away from the exam-as-a-hurdle model of assessment. Ian’s excellent point was that if you design your assessment to help students learn, that will mean doing things like making sure  your assessments address the right objectives, that the students understand these learning objectives and criteria, and that they get feedback which is useful to them, then you will also address points 2 and 1.

Ideas I found interesting from the initiatives at UoE, included

  • Having students describe learning objectives in their own words, to check they understand them (or at least have read them).
  • Giving students verbal feedback and having them write it up themselves (for the same reason). Don’t give students their mark until they have done this, that means they won’t avoid doing it but also once students know they have / have not done “well enough” their interest in the assessment wanes.
  • Peer marking with adaptive comparative judgement. Getting students to rank other students’ work leads to reliable marking (the course leader can assess which pieces of work sit on grade boundaries if that’s what you need)

In the context of that last one, Ian mention No More Marking which has links with the Mathematics Learning Support Centre at Loughborough University. I would like to know more about how many comparisons need to be made before a reliable rank ordering is arrived at, which will influence how practical the approach is given the number of students on a course and the length of the work being marked (you wouldn’t want all students to have to mark all submissions if each submission was many pages long). But given the advantages of peer marking on getting students to reflect on what were the objectives for a specific assessment I am seriously considering using the approach to mark a small piece of coursework from my design for online learning course. There’s the additional rationale there that it illustrates the use of technology to manage assessment and facilitate a pedagogic approach, showing that computer aided assessment goes beyond multiple choice objective tests, which is part of the syllabus for that course.