The first HEA discipline workshop of the year, entitled Embedding Self and Peer Assessment and Feedback in Practice (HEA events page) was held at the University of Ulster on 9 March 2012. This blog post represents my own reflections of the event. I do hope they are useful to either the delegates who were there, or anyone else who accidentally stumbles across these notes.
Denise McAlister, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Ulster introduced the day by emphasising the importance of feedback and how it plays a central role in teaching and learning. The student experience, it was argued, is significant affected by the provision and quality of feedback. Denise raised a number of challenges: how pedagogic design can offer opportunities for feedback. The opportunities have to be balanced with the potential risk of over-assessment. She also raised concerns about group assessment, particularly when it comes to transparency. It is therefore a necessity, of course, to provide robust processes to ensure that students are treated fairly and equally irrespective of the assessment method (or methods) that an institution may adopt.
The first main presentation of the day was by Alan Masson, Head of Technology Facilitated Learning at the University of Ulster. Alan's presentation was entitled 'Ulster Principles of Assessment and Feedback in learning, background and their use in promoting learning technologies'. Alan made the point that assessment and feedback is a key part of the student experience; it is an issue that affects student retention and achievement, module and course evaluation and the wider public perceptions of an institution. Alan mentioned something called the REAP principles (REAP website, PDF).
Alan went onto summarise a set of seven principles that Ulster use. These were (in essence): clarify good performance, encourage time and effort, deliver high quality feedback, provide opportunities to act on feedback, positive encouragement, develop self-assessment and reflection, and encourage interaction and dialog. More information about these principles can be seen by visiting the University of Ulster Assessment and Feedback website. During his presentation, Alan also directed us to something called the SCONUL Seven Pillars of Information Literacy, which was something I had not heard of before.
The second presentation of the day was by Rebecca Strachan, Northumbria University. Rebecca's presentation was entitled 'Peer Assessment for Formative Feedback - it's Good for You'. Rebecca introduced us to something called the Learning Pyramid, from the National Training Laboratories, which emphasises the notion that highest levels of retention (or perhaps understanding?) may arise when one student is asked to teach something to someone else. We were also directed to the Ripples model of learning (Phil Race's website) which presents 'seven factors underpinning successful learning'.
Rebecca presented a number of challenges regarding the subject of formative peer assessment. It is necessary to provide a motivation for the students, define the rules of engagement, and implement a system where by the tutor or instructor could offer (or provide) a moderation process. Finally, it was considered that the process of providing feedback is as useful as the feedback itself.
Two presentations about WebPA followed. WebPA is a web-based peer assessment tool that was developed at Loughborough University and was funded by JISC, building on earlier work. Keith Pond presented an outline of the WebPA system through his presentation 'WebPA - Multi-disciplinary peer-mark moderation of group work'. This was complemented by presentation about teaching practice by Neil Gordon, entitled 'Experiences and practice of using WebPA to support self and peer-assessment in teaching'.
What I liked about Keith's presentation was the summary of the history of the project and particularly the emphasis on feedforward comments (i.e. comments to help future performance, as opposed to reflections based on existing work that has been completed). What I liked about Neil's presentation was that he emphasised the importance of group work for software projects, speaking to an important industrial perspective that can be easily lost. More information about WebPA can, of course, be found by visiting the WebPA project website which is hosted at Loughborough.
The final subject specific presentation of the day was by Luke Chen who compared student perceptions of self and peer assessment by using two case studies: a masters module (advanced web technologies) and a undergraduate module (advanced interactive programming). One approach used Blackboard whilst the other used a paper based system.
A couple of weeks ago I attended an inclusive learning conference at the Open University. One themes that struck me from the conference was the importance of the student voice and the role that it can have in helping to inform educational practice. It was great to see that student voices (or student views) were also brought to the fore at this workshop.
Following on from Luke's earlier presentation, Steven McComb, a postgraduate student, gave his reflections on peer assessment. This was followed by a presentation by Tanya Fisher, a final year interactive multimedia design student, who also volunteered useful reflections. It was great to hear such positive assessments of the assessment process.
After lunch, we had the opportunity to participate in a curriculum design activity that was based on the JISC funded Viewpoints project (University of Ulster). We were asked to tools from the Viewpoints project to consider: standards, best practices, assessment and feedback principles, implementation ideas and the role of technologies.
The tools we were given comprised of a large laminated sheet which represented an empty module, and cards that we could stick to various parts of the module. I interpreted the tool to enable curriculum designers to consider different alternatives or to help to facilitate communication between different designers.
Although we didn't get much time to play with the tools, the use of cards which encapsulate aspects of curriculum design as a way to facilitate design of modules is one that is compelling.
The closing presentation of the day was by Mark Ratcliffe, Discipline Lead for Computing at the Higher Education Academy. Mark spoke briefly about the various workshops that were scheduled throughout the year and also told us about the different funding opportunities that were open to individuals as well as institutions. Opportunities range from small grants to enable delegates to travel to workshops through to large multi-institution collaborative projects. More information can, of course, be found by having a dig around in the HEA website, or by contacting the HEA directly.
Feedback is a really important subject. My own personal view is that it is something that takes a lot of skill and experience to do really well. One thing that we can every easily overlook is the feelings that our students experience as they receive their assignments or exam results. We need to be mindful of presenting encouragement to ensure that learners are in the right frame of mind to accept any future altering feedback that we may take time to compose and present. Peer assessment is one way to enable learners to develop critical thinking skills whilst at the same time enabling students to engage with the concepts and theories that may be the subject of an assessment.
Pedagogy, however, remains very important. Peer assessment, in my opinion, is likely to be an especially powerful tool if it is used in subjects where having the skills to constructively criticise is especially valued. During the workshop, the use of group work within software teams was something that was mentioned. Peer assessment is, of course, an invaluable tool in creative subjects, such as design.
All in all, a useful and successful workshop. Thanks Ulster!
Before I go, I have to confess that this was my first trip to Belfast and I really enjoyed it. One of my regrets is not having taken the opportunity to take more to explore the city and the surrounding area a bit more. Heading home to London I made a personal 'note to self' that I am most definitely going to return and do exactly that.