Today was spent at a QAA Scotland event which aimed to identify and share good practice in assessment and feedback, and to gather suggestions for feeding in to a policy summit for senior institutional managers that will be held on 14 May. I’ve never had much to do with technology for assessment, though I’ve worked with good specialists in that area, and so this was a useful event for catching up with what is going on.
The first presentation was from Gill Ferrell on electronic management of assessment. She started by summarising the JISC assessment and feedback programmes of 2011-2014. An initial baseline survey for this programme had identified practice that could at best be described as “excellent in parts” but with causes for concern in other areas. There were wide variations in practice for no clear reason, programmes in which assessment was fragmentary rather than building a coherent picture of a student’s capabilities and progress, there not much evidence of formative assessment, not much student involvement in deciding how assessment was carried out, assessments that did not reflect how people would work after they graduate, policies that were more about procedures than educational aims and so on. Gill identified some of the excellent parts that had served as staring points for the programme–for example the REAP project from CAPLE formerly at Strathclyde University–and she explained how the programme proceeded from there with ideas such as: projects agreeing on basic principles of what they were trying to do (the challenge was to do this in such a way that allowed for scope to change and improve practice); projects involving students in setting learning objectives; encouraging discussion around feedback; changing the timing of assessment to avoid over-compartmentalized learning; shifting from summative for formative assessment and making assessment ipsative, i.e. focussing on comparing with the students past performance to show what each individual was learning.
A lifecycle model for assessment from Manchester Metropolitan helped locate some of the points where progress can be made.
Steps 5, “marking and production of feedback” and 8 “Reflecting” were those were most help seemed to be needed (Gill has a blog post with more details).
The challenges were all pedagogic rather than technical; there was a clear message from the programme that the electronic management of assessment and feedback was effective and efficient. So, Jisc started scoping work on the Electronic Management of Assessment. A second baseline review in Aug 2014 showed trends in the use of technology that have also been seen in similar surveys by the Heads of eLearning Forum: eSubmission (e.g. use of TurnItIn) is the most embedded use of technology in managing assessment, followed by some use of technology for feedback. Marking and exams were the areas where least was happening. The main pain points were around systems integration: systems were found to be inflexible, many were based around US assumptions of assessment practice and processes, and assessment systems, VLEs and student record systems often just didn’t talk to each other. Staff resistance to use of technology for assessment was also reported to be a problem; students were felt to be much more accepting. There was something of an urban myth that QAA wouldn’t permit certain practices, which enshrined policy and existing procedure so that innovation happened “in the gaps between policy”.
The problems Gill identified all sounded quite familiar to me, particularly the fragmentary practice and lack of systems integration. What surprised most was the little uptake of computer marked assessments and computer set exams. My background is in mathematical sciences, so I’ve seen innovative (i.e. going beyond MCQs) computer marked assessments since about 1995 (see SToMP and CALM). I know it’s not appropriate for all subjects, but I was surprised it’s not used more where it is appropriate (more on that later). On computer set exams, it’s now nearly 10 years since school pupils first sat online exams, so why is HE so far behind?
We then split into parallel sessions for some short case-study style presentations. I heard from:
Katrin Uhilg and Anna Rolinska form the University of Glasgow about the use of wikis (or other collaborative authoring environments such as Google Docs) for learning oriented assessment in translations. The tutor sets a text to be translated, students work in groups on this, but can see and provide feedback on each other’s work. They need to make informed decisions about how to provide and how to respond to feedback. I wish there had been more time to go into some of the practicalities around this.
Jane Guiller of Glasgow Caledonian had students creating interactive learning resources using Xerte. They provide support for the use of Xerte and for issues such as copyright. These were peer assessed using a rubric. Students really appreciate demonstrating a deep understanding of a topic by creating something that is different to an essay. The approach also builds and demonstrates the students digital literacy skills. There was a mention at the end that the resources created are released as OERs.
Lucy Golden and Shona Robertson of the University of Dundee spoke about using on wordpress blogs in a distance learning course on teaching in FE. Learners were encouraged to keep a reflective blog on their progress; Lucy and Shona described how they encouraged (OK, required) the keeping of this blog through a five-step induction, and how they and the students provided feedback. These are challenges that I can relate to from asking students on one of my own course to keep a reflective blog.
Jamie McDermott and Lori Stevenson of Glasgow Caledonian University presented on using rubrics in Grademark (on TurnItIn). The suggestion came from their learning technologist John Smith, who clearly deserves a bonus, who pointed out that they had access to this facility that would speed up marking and the provision of feedback and would help clarify the criteria for various grades. After Jamie used Grademark Rubrics successfully in one module they have been implemented across a programme. Lori described the thoroughness with which they had been developed, with drafting, feedback from other staff, feedback from students and reflection. A lot of effort, but all with collateral benefits of better coherency across the programme and better understanding by the students of what was required of them
Each one of these four case studies contained something that I hope to use with my students.
The final plenary was Sally Jordan who teaches physics at the Open University talking about computer marked assessment. Sally demonstrated some of the features of the OU’s assessment system, for example the use of a computer algebra system to make sure that mathematically equivalent answers were marked appropriately (e.g. y = (x +2)/2 and y = x/2 + 1 may both be correct). Also the use of text analysis to mark short textual answers, allowing for “it decreases” to be marked as partially right and “it halves” to be marked as fully correct when the model answer is “it decreases by 50%”. This isn’t simple key word matching: you have to be able to distinguish between “kinetic energy converts to potential energy” and “potential energy converts to kinetic energy” as right and entirely wrong, even though they have the same words in them. These are useful for testing a student’s conceptual understanding of physics, and can be placed “close to the learning activity” so that they provide feedback at the right time.
Here was the innovative automatic marking I had expected to be commonly used for appropriate subjects. But Sally also said that an analysis of computer marked assessments in Moodle showed that 75% of the questions were plain old multiple choice questions, and probably much as 90% were some variety of selection response question. These lack authenticity (no patient ever says “Doctor, I’ve got one of the following four things wrong with me…”) and can be badly set so as to be guessable without previous knowledge. So why? Well, Sally had made clear that the OU is exceptional: huge numbers of students learning at a distance mean that there are fewer more cost effective options for marking and providing feedback, even when a large amount of effort is required. The numbers of students also allowed for piloting of questions and the use of assessment analytics to sort out the most useful questions and feedback. For the rest of us, Sally suggested we could do two things:
A) run moocs, with peer marking and use machine learning to infer the rules for marking automatically, or
B) talk to each other. Share the load of developing questions, share the questions (make them editable for different contexts).
So, although I haven’t worked much in assessment, I ended up feeling on familiar ground, with an argument being made for one form of Open Education or another.