Supporting innovation in teaching, learning and learner development at Roehampton

Motivating Students by Giving Assignments a Public Audience

Non-academics as Assessors

Andy Hoang by Elena in Vietnam drawing mailart-SMLSeveral careers ago, in a land far away, (Spain) our ex-colleague and Roehampton PGCE alumnus, Andy Hoang, was teaching Physics at the British Council School of Madrid. There, a most dispiriting bone of contention was the abysmal quality of his students’ lab reports. Nothing Andy said or did seemed to bring about any improvement until a conversation with a friend and fellow Physicist then working in the Patent office gave him an idea.

Andy challenged his students with an assignment, which was to write a patent for a simple object namely,  a pencil sharpener. He explained what a patent was and how precise the description of the item had to be. Students were also told that Andy wouldn’t be assessing this assignment. Rather, his friend in the Patent office would select the best one and write to inform the winner.

Pencil sharpner 0985105502_25percentThe students undertook this assignment with uncharacteristic gung-ho, handing them in with a flourish. Thereafter, they were mailed to the Patent office to be scrutinised. The winner received a signed letter on official Patent office paper that was mailed to the school and read out in class. It explained why this student’s work had received the highest score.

Impact of External Oversight on Students’ Work

This unorthodox assessment had remarkable repercussions. Students’ Physics lab reports improved significantly.  Why? Well, it could be argued that one reason for this was that the students had first hand experience of how an exercise that seemed totally irrelevant to anything they did, or might want to do, could in fact furnish them with transferable skills equipping them for a world beyond the classroom.

It is this idea of bringing the “world” into the classroom to both engage with and evaluate students’ work that can, as demonstrated here, motivate students to perform better than they would for their tutor’s eyes alone.

Going Public

peopleintown_TINYTraditionally, in Higher Education the matter of submitting an assignment for assessment is largely a private affair between the student author of the work and their tutor who grades it. Knowledge of any feedback given and access to students’ work is typically on ‘a need to know basis’ only. In contrast, although the students’ work wasn’t open to the public, Andy’s novel assignment was in fact assessed by a member of the public, (i.e. a non-academic external to the school).

In the following example the assignment is open to the public but, the primary assessor, in keeping with tradition, is an academic within the institution. Although, given the nature of the assignment the public could potentially comment on students’ work.

Public Blogging

The assignment in this case was an independent research project on topics beyond those covered in the core curriculum. Nevertheless, the research should link to the core and thus give students an opportunity to expand the breadth and depth of their learning. The project had originally taken the form of a hard copy scrapbook. But, as students often struggled to produce a convincing and coherent narrative that threaded throughout their entire work without getting lost along the way, Professor Nicki Humble sought an alternative medium that could potentially help them in this respect. With this in mind, reflection on both the subject matter of her modules and the other learning outcomes she’d set, led Nicki to conclude that blogs would be a better medium for this particular assignment.

What factors help to make a blog a good assessment choice?

In general, some of the generic factors that Nicki identified include:

  1. The module should cover, or relate to, topics that were open to many different interpretations, angles or perspectives.
  2. The subject matter should have material aspects or hinge on practical or tangible things or artifacts.
  3. The activity of blogging needs to facilitate the attainment of clear module learning objectives and outcomes. Such as learning to:
    • write for different audiences (e.g. amateur to professional)
    • create and sustain a consistent and coherent narrative
    • undertake independent research.
  4. A desire to provide a platform where students can respond to each other’s work and ideas.
  5. Wanting to create a lasting presence that students can share with prospective employers and future cohorts.
  6. The students are not currently tasked with writing multiple blogs as assignments on other modules.

Two of Nicki’s modules fitted the bill in these respects namely, Victorian Literature 1830-1900 and The Literature of Food. The blogging assignment for the first of these, requires each student to write one blog post on a relevant topic of interest to them in the Reframing the Victorians blog. It is described on its site as,

a shared blog for students of Victorian Literature at Roehampton University, in which they re-examine Victorian literature and culture.

The second module requires each student to create and post frequently to their very own blog.

Suitable Criteria for Blogging Assignments

As one of the judges for The Guild of Food Writers Awards, Nicki is well placed to advise her students on blogging and to assess their output. But, as with any assignment the trick is to impart a clear understanding of what students are expected to produce and how it will be bench marked. Class discussions are useful in this regard, and they can be underpinned with written criteria that students can readily access.  For examples of the blogging criteria and supporting information supplied to Nicki’s students see:

Nicki’s Top Tips on Managing Blogging Assignments

Checkbox-from-openclipartBe very clear in your own mind, what it is exactly that you will be assessing.  This should be encapsulated in your criteria for students, but further, ascertain how you propose to “measure” or judge it. If for example, you will be assessing students’ “analytical skills” consider how you will go about it.

Give your students really clear guidance with regards to these criteria as well as technical instruction for using the technology.

It is worth noting that there can be a fair bit of administrative overhead in getting the students up and running with blogging accounts and appropriate permissions where relevant. Hence, it behoves the tutor to acquaint him/herself thoroughly with the technology their students will be using. Consequently, it is probably not advisable to allow students to use any blogging tool of their choice unless you are well-versed in a wide cross-section of the available tools.

Also, be prepared to help your colleagues who may be moderating your assessment as well as external examiners.

Acknowledge that blogging will likely be a much more time consuming task for students than writing a typical 2,000-3,000 word essay. Hence, reflect on all the assessed tasks across your module when weighting and scheduling this particular assignment.

Impact of Blogging Publicly on Students’ Work

Overall, Nicki noted that her student’s tended to take their research projects more seriously given that their work potentially had a much wider audience than ‘just’ their tutor. They were also aware that this task wasn’t just an assignment but also an opportunity to master key transferable skills and develop a persistent online presence that could lead to gainful employment in the future.

Notable posts from the Reframing the Victorians blog:

Example blogs from the Literature of Food cohort of 2012-13:

Image of the pencil sharpener source:

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