Student Voice, Teaching Stories

A PASSion for Active Learning

With Christmas over, I’ve been looking over my timetable to see what the next teaching block has in store for me, and there’s now a conspicuous absence on a Tuesday afternoon. Until now, I’ve spent my time after lunch on a Tuesday with a friend scouring Blackboard, my fantastically unhelpful notes, and her slightly more helpful notes to try to plan an hour’s worth of interesting and useful activities for somewhere between one and seven 2nd year Biology students. That’s not just out of the kindness of my heart – alongside being a BILT student fellow, I’ve been moonlighting (or maybe it’s more accurate to say twilighting) as a PASS leader.

If you’re not aware what PASS is, it stands for Peer Assisted Study Sessions. It’s an initiative run for about 24 subjects in the university that provides student-run sessions for students to come and work on study skills, ask questions, get support with uni work and life and meet other people on their course. PASS is highly flexible, and changes to meet the needs of the students, but there are some key concepts:

  • It doesn’t replace teaching
  • It’s collaborative
  • It’s fun
  • It’s a partnership
  • It’s inclusive

PASS is definitely not more teaching for students. I’m barely qualified to be a student, let alone a lecturer, so I’m not there to give a seminar or disseminate knowledge. It’s about facilitating students to take charge of their own learning. But they don’t have to go it alone (the clue’s in the PA part of PASS). Students work as a team, helping each other by sharing knowledge and skills, in an engaging, enjoyable (I hope!) way. And more importantly, in the way they want – every part of the session: the plan, the content, the activities, is flexible to respond to what the students are getting the most from. There’s no point running an essay planning workshop when they’ve all got a coding assignment due in the next few days. There’s also no point running sessions that aren’t inclusive. By making sure feedback is asked for and heard, PASS can be made useful and enjoyable for everyone who attends. 

Sounds a lot like active, collaborative learning? With one key exception – PASS doesn’t replace teaching. It shouldn’t, either, it’s really great as an augmentation to the way students study already, and having a risk-free space where students can ask questions they might not be comfortable asking academics is very important. But, I think other forms of active, collaborative learning should start to replace teaching. 

Not all of it, certainly, and in many cases across the university, it already has. But it’s really important that lecture heavy, content loaded subjects think about what they can change up. Being a PASS leader really highlighted to me the failings of lecture-centric teaching and what’s great about active, collaborative learning. 

It’s not even been a year since I passed my exams on the content we were giving PASS sessions on, and I really struggled to remember it. “Rings a bell, definitely sounds like genetics” isn’t quite the same as having a deep understanding of the content, but in a lot of cases it was all I could muster up. And yet, an often used defence of the more traditional teaching style is that university needs to create disciplinary experts. I wouldn’t say I’m a disciplinary expert, but an expert on remembering content long enough to regurgitate it in an exam where I’m separated from my (admittedly slightly poorly written) notes. 

Conversely, the content we did go over in PASS sessions feels much more firmly cemented in my mind now. I had to understand it if I was going to design activities based on it, and answering questions as well as hearing the perspectives and thoughts of other students really pushed and challenged that understanding. 

There’s technically no barrier to creating exciting revision activities to work on in study groups as students ourselves. But when you’ve got 90 lectures worth of content to commit to memory (with extra reading, of course) and 6 exams looming, you’re going to stick to what works to pass the exam, even if that’s not the best learning experience. 

And there’s something else really important that I feel I’ve not mentioned enough, which is the fun element of more active and collaborative activities. All of the student fellows did a podcast recently, and we talked about how we don’t seem to focus on joy in learning nearly enough. I’m sure part of the reason my knowledge of molecular genetics has flown from my mind with such alarming speed is because of the unpleasant association with stress, the signature ASS Library smell of sweat and energy drinks (with a hint of desperation), and never-ending lines of garish notes, highlighted in every colour imaginable

As part of my work as a student fellow, I’m developing a quick start guide to making teaching more active and collaborative. But while that’s still in the works, check out the Digital Education Office’s resources, which includes case studies from throughout the Uni of how digital tools can support active and collaborative learning.

Toby Roberts, BILT Student Fellow

500 Words

e-marking as a tool for teachers and learners: evaluation of a GradeMark trial

Author: Andy Wakefield

School/ Centre: School of Biological Sciences

Provision of timely, detailed feedback is important for student learning (1), yet can be challenging to achieve in practice. Technology may hold the solution, say Dr Andy Wakefield.

The tech bit

Implementation of electronic management of assessment (EMA), has enormous potential for transforming teaching and learning (2,3). One widely used online tool is Turnitin, equipped with an originality-checker but also an e-marking function called GradeMark. This allows markers to annotate and grade student work digitally without the need to download or print work; no more stacks of paperwork on your desk and fewer trees being felled.

Aims

Here I summarize my findings from a GradeMark trial within the School of Biological Sciences (SoBS), in which I asked:

  1. Does using GradeMark allow for more efficient use of staff time?
  2. How does using GradeMark support student learning?

Methods

I conducted the trial on a third-year unit which consisted of four modules, each assessed via a 500-word report. I provided students with instructions for the e-submission process and teachers with guidance on how to access reports and use key tools within GradeMark. Student (n=19) and staff (n=3) opinions were gathered via end-of-unit feedback questionnaires.

Results

In general, both students and academics had positive views of GradeMark. Students:

  • found the digital workflow easy to use;
  • appreciated how easy it was to obtain/access their feedback;
  • liked the specific nature of their feedback;
  • liked the breakdown of marks offered by the rubric system;
  • liked the improved clarity of digital feedback.

Staff found GradeMark easy to use and believed that they provided the same amount of feedback for students in the same (n=1) or less (n=2) time, relative to marking paper-scripts. When asked about future use, all three agreed they would “definitely like to continue to use online marking”.

Discussion

From my study I found that e-marking can allow for more efficient use of staff time. It can also support student learning by allowing easy access to clear, timely, individualised, assessment feedback. These findings echo those published in the literature (4,5). One of the strengths of GradeMark is the QuickMark comment function, which allows for saved comments to be quickly reused. This function doesn’t currently exist within the Blackboard e-marking toolkit, which is the standard for EMA at UOB.

Other benefits to e-marking include: increased privacy of marks and feedback; and a greater likelihood that students will revisit feedback due to ease of access (3). However, focusing all our attention on the quality and quantity of our written comments may not fully address current student dissatisfaction with feedback. Large cohorts limit time available for student-teacher communication that was once integral to the feedback process (6). But don’t worry, technology provides us with multiple ways to switch from monologue back to dialogue. Why not try mediating discussion boards and blogs within Blackboard, or investigate adaptive release functionality to prevent release of student marks until they have reflected on their feedback? Engagement with EMA offers professional development benefits to staff and is claimed to be “essential for reasons of both pedagogy and efficiency(2).

References

  1. Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which Assessment supports Student Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3-31
  2. Ambler, T., Breyer, Y., & Young, S. (2014) Piloting online submission and online assessment with Grademark. In S. Kennedy-Clark, K. Everett & P. Wheeler (Eds.), Cases on the assessment of scenario and game-based virtual worlds in higher education (pp. 125-151). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
  3. Ferrel, G. & Gray, L. (2016) Electronic management of assessment. Using technology to support the assessment life cycle, from the electronic submission of assignments to marking and feedback. Jisc guide. Available at https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/electronic-assessment-management [Accessed 16/05/2017].
  4. Chew, E. & Price, T. (2010) Online originality checking and online assessment – an extension of academics or disruption for academics. In S. L. Wong, S.C. Kong & F.-Y. Yun (Eds.), Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Computers in Education (pp. 683-687). Putrajaya, Malaysia: Asia-Pacific Society for Computers in Education.
  5. Buckley, E. & Cowap, L. (2013) An evaluation of the use of Turnitin for electronic submission and marking and as a formative feedback tool from an educator’s perspective. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44 (4), 562-579.
  6. Nicol, D. (2010) From monologue to dialogue: improving written feedback processes in mass higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (5), 501-517.

If you’d like to share your work with BILT, please email bilt-info@bristol.ac.uk for more information.