This case study focused on an interactive teaching session which was co-delivered by two members of staff in a large flat lecture hall.
It involved 160 first year students, who were in their twelfth week of study on a year-long academic induction module.
By the time of the workshop, students had been introduced to important approaches to study in the subject domain via lectures, seminar activities and required reading and discussion tasks. Students were now working in self-selected teams to undertake a writing task, where each member of the group had contracted to produce a 1,000 word guide which explained a key concept for new students coming onto the course. The guides would form the basis of the summative assignment, and, while students were encouraged to work collaboratively with peers, every students’ guide would ultimately be handed-in and assessed individually, on a pass/fail basis.
It was six weeks before their work was due in. While some had begun to draft their work for this assignment, most had not, although they had begun to draw up rough plans of ideas about the concept they were going to tackle.
What was the rationale for trying to boost feedback at this point?
In previous years a number of students taking this module had failed to realise that although they were being asked to produce a guide for a student audience, tutors expected them to take a scholarly approach, which conveyed complex information in an accessible way. The exemplars were used, then, to alert students to the need to think carefully about the designated audience, so they didn’t confuse accessibility and immediacy with a lack of theory, to ensure their guides adequately met the assessment criteria and module learning outcomes. To this end, tutors were keen to ‘time-shift’ feedback (Handley et al, 2009) by engaging students mid-module with feedback tutors had generated on previous guides, especially those which had been unsuccessful.
Further, tutors were conscious that the format of the final assignment – a guide – sometimes caused uncertainty, given its variance from the more traditional essay format. Exemplars were seen as an opportunity to provide concrete examples of, and discussion about, the stylistic qualities (Orsmond et al, 2002) , or models of structure and layout, of this particular format. From the markers’ viewpoint, this distracted some students from focusing on the most important criterion, which was connected to comprehension of the key concept.
Four exemplars were produced, which were written by tutors in order to foreground diverse ways of addressing (or failing to address) the task criteria to produce their guide. The exemplars were based upon some common mistakes as well as strengths that markers had noted in work submitted by previous cohorts. The four exemplars were all based on the discussion of a single key concept, although students would ultimately be focussing their guides on a diverse range of similar concepts.
The two hour session was then set up in the following way:
Explaining the rationale for the session
At the start of the session tutors briefly explained the broad rationale for the workshop, and the ways in which they hoped students would benefit from the activities. These included giving students the opportunity to
- engage actively with the assessment criteria which would be used to evaluate the guide
- discuss with tutors why and how the criteria can be applied to the exemplar guides
- see concrete examples of effective and less effective ways of producing a guide
- build their experience in making qualitative judgments and generating feedback
- develop insights which would enable them to evaluate the quality of their own guide, in time to make adjustments, if necessary
Focusing on the assessment criteria
Next, tutors shared and discussed the assessment criteria everyone would be using to evaluate the guides. These were turned into questions students could ask themselves when trying to form judgments about the quality of each exemplar in the resource pack being provided.
Ranking the exemplars
Students were then asked to work individually on the exemplars, reading them through several times and making notes about the things they noticed about each one. They were asked to do this in silence, as they would in exam conditions, so that people could concentrate. They were also asked not to write on the scripts themselves, which were all collected in at the end of the session.
Once they had finished, students were invited to complete the first element on a worksheet, which asked them to place the 4 exemplars in rank order, starting with the ‘best’.
Writing a review and producing feedback comments
Students were then invited, on the next part of their worksheet, to create an individual review for each of the four examples in turn. They were asked to be constructive: highlighting any strengths they observed in each answer and generating feedback comments which would help the student-writer of each piece to improve their work yet further. They were reminded of the importance of using the criteria to help compile each review.
Opening up assessment and feedback dialogues
Once the students had completed their reviews, tutors went about the ‘reveal.’ They did this by asking students to go through each exemplar with them one by one, imagining where they thought each would be placed if it were a cursor on a spectrum from ‘most effective’ to ‘least effective’. They did this in the form of a game show, with students calling out and indicating whether they thought the cursor should be moved higher or lower for each. During the process, tutors revealed and discussed their views of each exemplar, identifying the feedback that they would offer to help move each exemplar’s cursor further towards the upper end of the spectrum. They also encouraged students to think about any ‘surprises,’ and allowed plenty of time for students to return to have another look at the four examples, and discuss them with their peers, in the light of what they had just heard.
Throughout this phase, and at the end, students were encouraged to ask any questions and request any points for clarification.
The session rounded off with a five minute paper, with students being asked to make a note of the key things they had discovered during the workshop. This material provided teaching staff with information which helped them adjust future sessions to meet students’ needs.
Students were invited to complete a brief survey. Students were generally positive about the value of the session, with 77 of the 86 respondents claiming it was useful to think about work from the viewpoint of the markers. Particular comments included valuing the ways in which it helped them see models of layout and structure
‘Seeing how to set out the assignment’
or helped them recognise the need to
‘…..do more reading on the subject so that I understand it fully.’
64 out of the 86 students who responded to the relevant survey item said they were going to change their approach to the assignment in the light of the workshop.
Interestingly, despite the tutors’ conviction that students would be most interested in the failing piece of work, students claimed to learn most from the mid-range exemplar, rather than the one which represented a failure to meet the assessment criteria, or from the two which represented different ways of meeting the criteria to a very high standard. This sound-standard exemplar, which was an extremely industrious piece but which used overly long direct quotes drawn from extensive wider reading, was used by the tutors to discuss the issue of academic inter-textuality and concepts of authorship. A large number of students claimed this was the most important ‘take-home message’ of the session for them, because it was something they were doing in their own writing, in response to being advised, in teacher feedback, to draw upon wider reading. The following quotations briefly illustrate students’ viewpoints:
‘People were thinking that putting in a lot of quotes will help, but you need to be able to understand when and how you use them.’
‘It was interesting how the student’s voice was in some not others, even when wider reading was done.’