BILT Funded Projects

How do we encourage our students to engage with formative work when it’s difficult and they may struggle to make progress?

A Teaching Innovation Grant was awarded to Dr Helen Heath for the academic year 2018/19

I should say that I’m talking about coursework in the sort of subjects that are usually assessed with a final examination. Where there is the possibility of students producing the same solution to problems (either right or wrong) without collaborating it’s a challenge to see the unseen examination completely disappearing.

The TESTA project has identified that many pure science courses have very large numbers of summative assessment. Those in these areas don’t find this surprising. Students need to do problems in order to gain facility in mathematical techniques. There is a reluctance to provide students with solutions as they might “learn them by rote”.  There are techniques that need to be learnt by rote – we don’t derive Pythagorus’s theorem from scratch – but there is an issue where learning a set of specific examples can fake understanding. At a workshop early in this project we looked at the literature on problem solving and grappled with the fact that our students are a diverse bunch. Some will willingly spend hours grappling with seemingly intractable problems, others are less determined or perhaps have fewer resources at their command. Worked examples can help those struggling with material and there is little value in staring at a problem where you can’t even get started. So we, perhaps reluctantly, provided more solutions. 

Whether to assess coursework in lecture-based units or not is also a hot topic for discussion. Coursework problems are often seen as a way to “help weaker” students by allowing them to get some marks under their belt. It’s also a way of encouraging students to engage with formative material. Give some marks and they will do it. Of course, some will do the work because there are marks. Others get very stressed about assessments that count for very little. There is also the issue that introducing course work into one unit will almost certainly improve student performance on that unit compared to others – especially if it is the only unit with coursework. However, introducing course work to all units just increases student load.  (It also increases staff load with marking and administration). A change in regime for assessment in the 1st year of our course, with the marks no longer counting to emphasis the formative nature of these questions – which are discussed in tutorials – was an opportunity to assess whether assessing coursework made much difference.

Were there dramatic changes due to any of this? No. The students did better on the exams than last year but not significantly so – and not outside the sort of variation we might expect from year to year. Am I surprised? No. If there were a simple solution to help all students succeed, we would probably have found it by now. A glance at the numbers shows that some students will be advantaged and some disadvantaged by any scheme that incorporates two types of assessment. No scheme is “ideal” for all students. If they were all the same teaching and assessing would be so much easier. But a lot less interesting.

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