The elephant

Last week I was fortunate to be invited to a Faculty retreat on assessment. Over 60 academics from Engineering and IT got together to ideate and ruminate on future possibilities. The driver for the day came from one of the outcomes from a 2016 Faculty retreat, which called for a rethink of how we assess our students. The Learning and Teaching team in the Faculty led by Rob Jarman, Roger Hadgraft and Justine Lawson, opened the day by introducing the ‘elephant in the room’ that is assessment, and four categories which we would tackle: purpose, marking/resources, feedback and students.

This expression (elephant in the room) is used to refer to an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about. It is usually because the problem is multi-faceted and everyone knows there is no easy fix. Better to acknowledge but ignore it (for now). This was a day to face our assessment problems head on (un-tether the elephant) and begin the difficult conversations which would hopefully lead to solutions. Our ultimate goal – an improved student experience.

Design thinking

Using a design thinking approach we began with time to ‘wallow’ (continuing with the elephant metaphor) around in the problems before defining some problem statements. We considered our many pain points in a think-pair-share exercise at our tables and summarised these back to the plenary. Then came the ideation phase where each group brainstormed endless possible solutions to the problem. Some of these ideas included:

  • using workplace tools and technologies such as Trello, to give individual /peer review in a group setting
  • designing a new framework for designing assessment for deep learning
  • use of AI to provide qualitative student feedback (save time for marking)
  • data analytics to improve IT systems used for assessment – mine data to provide dashboards for both staff and students
  • competency assessment, rather than grades
  • moving the focus from low achievers to high; triaging assignment submissions and using higher achieving students to give feedback to lower level students
  • using students as designers for learning and assessment

A radical approach

Next Dr Llew Mann introduced us to the new Engineering Practice degree at Swinburne University. The program has no lectures, no exams, and is co-designed and co-delivered with industry. Swinburne have set up a simulated consulting company into which the students are hired, and they conduct all of their assessment through authentic work-place tasks. This got the creative juices flowing. What would we like to see in our world class engineering or IT course?

The student experience

Our next challenge was to consider the performances we want our students to achieve during their degree program and how we would know that they are being achieved. We considered a series of cars ranging from a child’s home made box car to an F1 model of superior performance. Where does our student experience lie on this continuum? Do we need a 4WD model to accommodate all the terrains?

We know that students’ prior experience combined with teaching context contributes to learning activity and quality learning outcomes. How can we enact this through authentic assessment? One interesting idea came from the engineers on my table who suggested that students could perhaps enter the course/subject/program and begin to develop a ‘mission’ that they want to achieve by the end. They may not come in the door knowing what theirs is, but they leave with one. This idea of student contracts or student negotiated outcomes is not new, but is certainly one worth pursuing.

Next Steps

This is by no means the end to the innovative ideas and discussions on assessment practices. The faculty Learning and Teaching team are going to start a series called ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ to continue these conversations and to encourage staff to bring along their ‘hairy problems’ and ‘tricky questions’ around assessment that are still waiting to be answered and debated. Faculty staff should watch out for Faculty announcements for more details, or look in the Faculty Learning & Teaching Hub (in UTSOnline).

During the day I kept notes via Twitter using the hashtag #UTS_FEIT. I’ve gathered these together using Storify and you can access the full story here.

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