Apples and oranges arranged in rows as if at a fruit market; CC-BY 2.0, Flickr, serakatie

Assessment Ideas

The Faculty of Science and Engineering held an ‘Assessment Ideas’ session on 27 April, attended by over a dozen people from across the faculty. Attendees shared their practices and challenges…

Academic integrity

How do we ensure students’ work is their own?

Watch them do it

David Spence shared how in a physics unit, each week students take a mini-test of 10 minutes in class, which staff mark quickly. Students are expected to revise at home and work on practice questions each week. This component is 10% of the final mark, enough to be some incentive, and was a replacement for a larger assignment. This was partly a measure to combat plagiarism of solutions, because for numerical assignments the solutions will tend to be very similar if not identical. This practice has encouraged attendance at tutorials, although some students do the quiz and then leave. By ‘forcing’ regular work, it has helped students work more consistently throughout the unit. Some will go to the numeracy centre and work on the practice problems together, adding a valuable peer learning component.

A unit convenor, who remarked on the sadness of making students perform assessments in front of staff, shared her experience of chatting with a ghost writing service that had advertised her exact assignment question. Students can pay on a scale to gain different grades for each assignment, and, as each assignment is written specifically, plagiarism is difficult to detect. In this context:

Consider individualisation and variety

While in-class and invigilated assessments are one way of tackling the problem, other ways include personalising assignments, relating assignments contextually to other activities, student engagement in writing assessment criteria and design of tasks, formative task submissions (ask students to incorporate earlier feedback) and variety in types of assessment. Does the environment created within a course encourage students to feel part of the class and identify with the material and learning objectives? Is it clear how assessment fits with students’ goals and development?

Support for skills development

How do we foster general skills and graduate outcomes?

Remove pressure and give students flexibility

We heard about the ‘skills mastery’ method, used by Kira Westaway in a third year Environmental Science unit, that helps students become aware of the skills they are acquiring in a portfolio-style activity. It uses a carrot approach: students are required to master a set of skills over the course of the unit and provide evidence for their attainment, but there are no marks attached. Students need to ‘own’ the process of becoming proficient. In practical terms, the unit uses a quiz activity for students to submit their mastery info. Teachers review the evidence and decide whether the skills have been acquired, based on criteria. Teaching staff prompt students on how they can use the many practical opportunities in the unit to practice and evidence their developing skills, such as a one-minute talk on a field-trip.

Offer lower-stress practice

Rosemary Giuriato explained how in Chiropractic, video assignments are used to prepare for vivas: a student records a case presentation and sends it to the tutor for review. While many videos are quite basic, sometimes there is an Oscar-winning performance. This activity helps students prepare for their viva assessments in front of a live panel, allowing them become more comfortable with the situation by starting without the audience. The videos are also given peer review and feedback, useful to both the giver and recipient in applying critical thinking to the task.

Add some reflection

In Kerrie Tomkins’ Environmental Science field trip group work assignment, students do a group presentation, and then a peer review that provides half the mark. The peer review provides insights into what students value in their group work: they like the inclusion of all group members, rather than the formation of cliques; and they want pleasant and helpful, not necessarily the most academically-inclined, students in their group.

In Louise Brown’s research-based unit, a capstone in the Biomolecular Sciences, the assessment includes a private reflective blog worth 10% that covers the participation score. It uses rubrics to judge on process rather than content, including how students have engaged in planning and reflecting on experiments. A suggestion from another participant on perhaps using the blog to share with other students prompted the comment that the nature of the task and what students wrote in response would certainly change.

Program-based assessment

In the session, we also discussed program-based assessment: a number of FSE programs (Biological Sciences, Physics labs, Chiropractic, CBMS, etc) will be reviewing and redesigning their assessments at a program level this year, expanding our understanding of what it takes to build Goldilocks assessment across units and years – not too little, not too much, but just right. The learning and teaching team, together with others at the University, are assisting, including piloting data visualisation to assist in mapping assessment across programs.

Bar charts tracing workload of staff and students. Most workload is in Week 7 with high workloads in exam week.
An example of mapping assessment workloads across a session. Other graphs visualise types of assessment.

For a program in which most students share units, it is simpler to take a program approach than for more flexible programs, where one unit may serve multiple programs, or students in a major work through varied combinations of units and pathways.

A program approach can help diversity in assessment. Students can otherwise end up being great at things like exam-taking or essay writing that do not necessarily mirror what they will do in professional life. Chiropractic, for example, uses different styles of assessment – not just examinations, but also real-life clinical experiences, a standardised approach that uses video and written cases, as well as viva case examinations.

The message from Michael Hitchens was ‘the [unit convenor] king is dead,’ and changes to assessment will no longer be made without considering what effect those changes have for the program.

Thanks to the attendees for sharing their experiences and discussing the current state of assessment in science and engineering. It’s an important topic and, to quote our incoming AD L&T, James Downes, ‘expect more workshops and resources in this area.’

Featured image:  ‘Apples and Oranges‘ by serakatie CC-BY 2.0

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