This post was co-authored by Mai Hansford and Michaela Zappia. Mai and Michaela were recipients of a FFYE grant in 2018. Here they recount their project aims, and how their work has developed since.

Our project focused on The Ecology of Public Communication, a first year subject in the Public Communication Major in the Bachelor of Communication offered in Autumn and Spring. Between 400-500 students enrol in this subject each year, with 85% in the Autumn session. 

In 2018 subject coordinator Dr Mai Hansford applied for a FFYE (then FYE) grant to help students understand rubrics and how to apply them to their own work. This project was developed after hearing Dr Sue Joseph report on her much larger project which included the use of rubrics for a similar purpose.

Assessments in The Ecology of Public Communication

The first assessment task in the subject is designed to help students learn about academic research, writing, discussion and critique, as well as the concepts addressed in the weekly readings. In Weeks 3, 4 and 5 students prepare summaries of the readings to bring to class, which they discuss in small groups. Using these discussions, readings and the lecture, students then craft a short post that captures the debates across these elements.

Our aims

For the majority of students, this is one of the first subjects in their transition to university, so many feel uncertain about how to approach assessments. They are often unfamiliar with how to critique their own work using assessment rubrics and lack understanding of what constitutes ‘good’ work.

  • We wanted to guide students in using the assessment rubric to improve performance in their first assessment (and subsequent assessments). 
  • We also wanted to help casual tutors build their skills, so they were engaged in the development of the rubrics and related in-class exercises.

Our strategies

Staff Workshop

A workshop led by IML staff aimed to help tutors better understand how to guide students in the classroom and use the rubric as a learning tool.

Time was allocated to discuss and amend the rubric, then tutors were asked to assess example posts from previous years to ensure agreement on the grades and response to the rubric. These example posts would then be used for the classroom exercises with students – examples of a fail, credit and distinction were selected to show students.

In-class exercises

Firstly, tutors encouraged students to give feedback, discuss their understanding of the rubric wording and suggest improved language. The subject coordinator then collated and modified the rubric to reflect suggestions.

Secondly, students were instructed how to use the rubric to evaluate example posts. In pairs, students applied the rubrics and discussed their own gradings and how their grades compared to those given by other pairs and, at the conclusion, to the original marks. By examining work submitted by students from previous years, students could see what is expected of them prior to submitting their own work, helping them gain confidence.

Thirdly, students were asked to bring one ‘mock post’ each for the first assessment task, in Week 3. To craft the mock posts, students used readings, lecture material and class discussions from Week 2, using the task as a ‘practice run’ for the assessment task they are asked to submit in Week 4.

After discussion, students then individually assessed each others’ mock posts against a particular criterion and gave advice to their classmate/s on how to improve the post against this criterion. This enabled students to provide peer-to-peer formative evaluation in a supportive, collaborative learning environment before writing and submitting their actual assessment in Week 4 (weighted at 5%).

Feedback from students and staff

Students and staff were surveyed anonymously after the initial phase to help determine whether the project objectives were met and what improvements could be made for the future.

Responses from students indicated students had a better understanding of how to approach the development of their own work, built skills in critical thinking and gained confidence to undertake the task. Students agreed that the tutorial exercises helped them to understand what constitutes “good work” and what they needed to do to achieve a pass grade or above.

It was good to get past examples that helped us establish a fail/pass/distinction grade through its content and structure, helping to identify weak points and structures that could be good and helpful as reference.

Student feedback

In suggesting improvements, students wanted more examples and the opportunity to look at the whole range, rather than just one. Students also wanted to know from tutors what specific aspects meant some example posts received a higher grade than others, asking tutors to “mention certain things students included that got them the higher marks”.

Students also wanted a broader scope in their mock post feedback, with one student responding that “…I personally got a very limited scope of feedback on just my referencing even though I was looking for feedback on my content and structure”. They wanted more students to look at their work to allow for a broader range of feedback and richer comments; “Maybe have 2 or 3 different peers mark your work so that you get a range of opinions”.

Further developments

Since the first iteration of the project in 2018, the following changes have been made: 

  • The classroom exercises are spread across two weeks.
  • An example of ‘good work’ is marked up by the subject coordinator to give students a clearer idea of how to meet the criteria.
  • All samples are uploaded to Canvas so that students can refer back to them outside class.
  • Students have more time to think about what constitutes useful feedback, through a whole-of-class discussion which is documented by tutors into a list of tips. 
  • The mock post exercise places students in small groups and gives them a chance to assess works against different criteria points. For example a student may assess one peer’s mock post for integration of lecture material, then assess another for demonstrating understanding of key concepts. 
  • Students submit their first assessment post after Week 3, receive their grade (worth 5% of total grade) and individual feedback in time to make any necessary adjustments before submitting the second and third posts (together 30% of final grade). Students can also be connected to HELPS or library workshops if needed.

Mai and Michaela’s work in their FYE (First Year Experience) grant demonstrates the process and practice of a grant to enhance successful student transition into the first year of university learning – identify a troublesome area that students find difficult, trial an approach that draws from previous evidenced-based practice and is linked to one or more of the Curriculum Principles in Transition Pedagogy, train tutors to embed the practice, and evaluate the approach with students (surveys) and tutor reflections. In 2019, FYE became FFYE (First and Further Year Experience), with grant opportunities to improve student transition in core subjects in both undergraduate degrees (all years) and first year in postgraduate degrees.

Kathy Egea, IML Senior Lecturer and UTS FFYE program coordinator

Feature image by Andrew Neel.

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