Case Studies, News, Student Voice

Active, Collaborative Students as Researchers

Toby and Emily design a form of assessment

We recently published our first issue of the BILT Undergraduate Research Journal and the fantastic engagement from students got us Student Fellows thinking: how can we bring this level of enthusiasm and interaction into learning and teaching?

What’s the idea?

Translating the process of creating a journal into a method of assessment. Students would create a mini journal, using the peer-reviewing process to engage with each other’s work, comment on it, and then work on those improvements in their own essay. A mini-journal would be made as a final product, bringing together work from all students to display their achievements and to foster a research community.

Peer feedback and responding to feedback are critical for active learning. Creating a ‘journal’ as part of a module would give students the chance to learn in an active way, but with a natural structure that is not drastically different to current methods of assessment. This model of assessment could work across the disciplines, in essay-based Arts subjects and more project-based or practical subjects. It could also work for an essay written by a single student, or a paper or project created in a group.

How would it work in a module?

This idea could either function as a method of assessment within a current unit or be used as a basis for a new module. For instance, you could take a first- or second-year unit and then apply this model of assessment to the essay or mini research project in that unit. Instead, students would write a draft essay/paper, undergo the peer review process, edit their essay and then submit it. The mark would be proportionally split between the final essay and the comments they made peer reviewing others’ work. Or, a new module could be designed around this method of assessment. Many subjects already have research skills or study skills-based units, and this could be a new way of orchestrating those units, with a focus on peer review and self-development. Basing a unit around this method of assessment would allow more time and resources to be dedicated towards teaching students to peer review work effectively. Students could be free to research a topic of their choosing, but then would come together to peer review each other’s work and to think critically.

How would peer-reviewing work?

After submitting their ‘draft’ essay, students would then receive 4 or so anonymised essays from other students. This process could be randomised, or designed so that students were exposed to a range of different subjects (and potentially to avoid plagiarism). Using a well-structured form that guided them through the feedback process, with key areas to focus on, or questions to answer about the work, students would then review the essays they had been given, giving thoughts, comments and ideas for improvement. This form should be based on the same marking criteria that academics will use to assess the final essay. Minimum & maximum word limits or fixed-size text-boxes could make sure students received equal feedback.

The peer-reviewed papers would be returned to the authors, giving them a chance to reflect and make improvements, before later submitting the final ‘journal-ready’ essay to be marked and then published in the mini-journal.

How would the assessment work?

Students could be partially assessed on the quality of the feedback they write for other papers, in terms of how insightful, helpful and in-depth their comments are. This would also encourage students to engage with the peer reviewing process more seriously. This peer-review mark could form a small percentage of the student’s overall mark for the assessment, the exact proportion could be decided by consulting students prior to the start of the assessment period.

The final essay submitted to the journal would then be marked by an academic, in the same way that work is usually marked within that module/school. This mark would make up the remaining percentage of the overall mark for the assessment. Assessing their essay in this way would allow the first draft to act as a formative essay, giving students chance to reflect and improve before submitting the final essay for marking.

What are the benefits?

First and foremost, students would get a huge increase in the feedback they received. Lack of feedback is a common source of conflict as students want as much as they can get, and staff are stretched thin, unable to spare the time to give students in-depth feedback on more and more work. Using a peer-review process, students would get far more comments, thoughts and ways to improve on their work, without staff having to give up too much time. And, by giving feedback based on the marking criteria, students would be exposed to more ideas from other students and gain a much better understanding of the mark schemes their own work is assessed against. The marking criteria will become more transparent, meaning the marks students receive will feel more representative of their efforts and hopefully less arbitrary. In future work, students will have a clearer idea of how to achieve the marks they are aiming for. Not to mention that both giving and responding to feedback are key skills students need to develop and will be invaluable in their life after university.

But most of this applies to peer-feedback in any format. Framing the process as a journal submission gives students an experience of the academic world and the submission processes they might one day be navigating themselves as researchers. It’s more authentic and relevant than peer-assessment for its own sake which can sometimes feel forced and hard to engage with. At the end of it all, they get a fantastic resource, something they can be proud of, containing not only their work, but the work of other students that they otherwise may not have seen. It’s impossible to create a research community if students only ever see their own work!

It’s a much more rewarding process than writing an essay in isolation and sending it off to Blackboard, possibly never to be seen or thought about again. By engaging in this kind of process in first or second year, students will get in the mindset of a researcher early on and have the skills and experience for when they need to tackle their high-stakes dissertation or final research project.

Active, Collaborative Students as Researchers

No-one would disagree that giving students a sense of achievement and pride in their work, creating an academic community, and giving students feedback skills are good things. But maybe, at the moment, they aren’t prioritised enough. The BILT Journal has shown that students will engage with this process and want to be able to celebrate their work and share it with others. Already, students in subjects such as History have decided to create a blog containing essays from different year groups, as a place for those students to celebrate their work but also to provide examples of essays to help other students. Using a mini-journal as a form of assessment makes it accessible to more students and embeds these skills into the curriculum, developing subject-specific knowledge at the same time.

Want to check out the BILT Journal? Find it here!

Toby Roberts BILT Student Fellow 19/20 – working on the project ‘Active, Collaborative Learning’.

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