This week’s “do one thing” is to discuss my experience or expectations of e-assessment and e-feedback to support student learning.
Despite some early exploration of computed-aided assessments (MCQ etc) a few years ago, I haven’t really continued using it for summative assessments. There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, our institution changed the software used for delivering these assessments. Whilst this is often a necessity, as software is revised, or licence agreements are changed, it does provide practical issues for the user. Personally, I found the software that we’ve moved to doesn’t allow me to catalogue or store the questions in a meaningful way, so keeping track of what questions are in the bank is quite difficult. This, coupled with the fact that the student numbers on the course are low anyway (MSc students, so small groups), meant I felt more comfortable going back to paper-based assessment. This felt like a step backwards to me (especially given my interest in all things techy!), but it was a step I felt at the time was best for my students. Obviously I think I’d feel differently if I was dealing with large undergraduate classes, and the software is being used very successfully with our medical course. It’s certainly on my list to explore again at some point, but as with many things, it’s finding the time to dedicate to it so I can do it properly.
However, having said all that, I do continue to use technology to provide formative assessment in my modules, one example of which I’ll cover here.
Why did/would you choose a particular type of e-assessment? Describe why you think it is effective and how it can help deepen knowledge and understanding.
The first module on the MSc contains a set of 3 short practical sessions. The students are given the notes in advance, and need to calculate the volumes of reagents needed for the experiment. When I first ran these sessions, much of the lab time was spent sorting out misunderstandings in these calculations. This in turn seemed to lead to a rushed atmosphere, where students appeared to feel that they didn’t have enough time to do the experiments (when in reality there was plenty), which in turn led to more mistakes. Something had to be done! So what did I introduce? Well, I’ve made much more use of Moodle over the past couple of years, providing resources to help them understand the lab sessions in advance. This includes 2 aspects where I think the technology has helped me address the issues I was seeing in the practical sessions.
- Short quizzes (MCQ, matching, true/false questions) – these have to be completed by the day before the lab session. They are purely formative and can be taken as many times as the student wants. Automatic feedback is provided for each question, with pointers to where the student can revisit information to help their understanding. This provides a quick way for students to check how much of the information they’ve understood, whilst also providing experience of the type of questions they’re likely to find in the final exam (always appreciated!).
- Submission of the answers to the calculations prior to the lab session. The worksheets that the students have already been given are provided in electronic format in Moodle – students complete these by the day before the lab session and submit them via Moodle. I can then review them, add feedback comments to the document and send it back to them. I currently do this via email, but also plan to explore whether providing feedback via Moodle would have any benefit.
I think this approach has several benefits, but the main one is that it allows the students to check their understanding before they’ve even set foot in the lab. Being able to correct any misunderstandings before the session makes it more relaxed, meaning students can then concentrate purely on the practical side of the session, obtaining a better understanding of the experiment rather than rushing through it. Common misunderstandings can also be revisited at the start of the session so that everyone is clear on where they occurred; I also think this helps reassure the students that everyone else was making similar mistakes as well!
In your experience, what type of approach creates an environment conducive to self-directed learning, peer support and collaborative learning? How might technology help?
With these courses I aim to foster an environment where students are comfortable helping each other and asking me for help or clarification when there’s something they don’t understand. This is obviously easier with low numbers compared to a large undergraduate class which presents different issues. For postgraduates we’re aiming to develop their independent study skills, but this doesn’t mean just letting them get on with it. Many need additional guidance on how to do this, especially students from overseas who may be used to a very different way of studying in their undergraduate degree. Some of these cultural issues also mean that students can be reluctant to ask me for help, preferring instead to approach their peers. This can be useful, but I also need to ensure that all of this support doesn’t land on the other students. Providing group tasks which I oversee, or online tasks such as the one described, seems to get over some of these hurdles as there’s an impression of being slightly removed – the students don’t actually have to admit face-to-face that they don’t understand. Obviously I’d like them to be able to do this, and this is something I work on developing as the course progresses. However, for the first module, this use of technology seems to work at addressing this issue, as well as improving the initial problems which were identified. There’s also some collaborative learning going on, as I know that students often work together on the calculations before submitting them to me. I do encourage this, as having to explain something to someone else often means a deeper understanding.
What opportunities and challenges does this approach present to tutors?
I think this approach has provided a great opportunity for me to address common misunderstandings and problems prior to the lab sessions, which can be intimidating for those with limited practical experience when they start the course. It also encourages students to self-assess right from the start of the course, which is something I wanted to instill.
There aren’t too many challenges now, certainly not big ones. Obviously there was some setting up in the beginning (eg writing the quiz questions and appropriate feedback) and I’d like to add to these in the future. There is a commitment every week for me to assess the worksheets which are submitted, but this isn’t huge with the small numbers on an MSc course. If numbers increased, I’d probably look at some form of auto-marking for this (numerical questions are fairly easy to mark automatically), which would then allow me to highlight the wrong answers and provide specific feedback for these areas. I guess a challenge for rolling this out further (as with so many things) is getting other staff to see the benefits. For now, I’m happy that I’m helping my students and I’ll continue to explore ways that I can build on what I’ve already done.