“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” So said Maya Angelou, black American poet and author, referring, I guess, to intractable issues of prejudice and racism.
But these words ring equally true in any challenging situation. And for many further and higher education institutions, assessment and feedback are high up on the list of such challenges.
The JISC Assessment and Feedback Programme meeting on 17 October in Birmingham brought together projects from all three strands of the programme. Their combined presentations in the market place session clearly underlined a need for change. Making effective use of administrators’ and academics’ time, improving students’ response to feedback and doing so at scale were some of the difficult issues the projects are addressing.
Their accounts provided an insight into the difficulties of effecting change, even when all agree it’s needed. After all, assessment touches all bases, from stakeholder perceptions to curriculum design and administrative functions, and traditional practices are deeply embedded.
But the most enduring impression from our day in Birmingham was that lasting institution-wide improvements to assessment and feedback are beginning to take shape. However, achieving a step change in assessment and feedback means first making changes to the way we think and talk about them.
Technology, as always, provides the catalyst, but there are few technology-mediated solutions that do not require a supported approach to change. Take for example, e-submission and e-marking, aspects of assessment that are new to many academic staff.
These clearly offer benefits in terms of effective curriculum delivery as well as efficiency gains. Several project teams reported positive outcomes from their work on technology-supported assessment management: “Reports from GradeMark are helping tutors identify trends in strengths and weaknesses in student work which also has informed Curriculum Design in two modules.” EBEAM “The move to online submission, marking and feedback has produced efficiency savings and more effective feedback.” E-AFFECT.
Nonetheless, introducing such approaches on a wide scale involves people and cultures as much as technology. Without dialogue with course and programme teams about their individual assessment practices and needs, transformation can prove elusive: “One size does not fit all – you need a thorough analysis of needs. A roll out of assessment management tools is not about the tech, it’s about people, processes and clear benefits matched to need.” OCME. A similar message came from project teams evaluating and implementing electronic voting systems and developing standards-based question banks for e-assessment.
So changing the way things are done clearly involves changing the discourse as well as the tools of assessment. This important first step can be supported by staff development resources from the Viewpoints project in the Institutional Approaches to Curriculum Design programme. The projects in the Assessment and Feedback programme are telling us that more such resources and guidance will soon be on their way!
Ros Smith (Synthesis consultant to the JISC Assessment and Feedback programme)