Teaching Stories

The Primary Experience: What Can We Learn about Cross-Institutional Changes?

The following post was written by Dr. Isabel Hopwood-Stephens, a TESTA Researcher.

As one of the TESTA researchers attached to BILT, I’m going to be involved in collecting and analysing data about Bristol undergraduates’ experience of assessment. The aim of TESTA is to provide an evidence-based starting point for discussions among Programme Teams about how students’ experience of assessment might be improved, thereby increasing their engagement with their study and satisfaction with the course.

This is done by sharing any issues identified in the analysis and providing ideas which are likely to involve teaching staff making changes to aspects of the assessment experience; for example, offering detailed verbal feedback on a draft of an essay, which the student can use to improve it, before the essay is submitted for grading, or explicitly discussing and exemplifying the marking criteria with students to help them internalise standards.

Having a good idea about how to improve students’ experience of assessment is one thing, though; making the required modifications to working habits to enact those ideas is another. My recent research into the factors that enable or inhibit changes to assessment practice among primary school teachers has provided some interesting pointers.

As part of my study into primary teachers changing their assessment practice, I looked at the main vehicle for teachers’ professional development in primary schools: the staff meeting. I was expecting to find that staff meetings with particular characteristics – where teachers could discuss how they worked, were encouraged to raise questions, and where the focus on learning was clear – would be significantly linked to subsequent reports of school-wide changes to their assessment practice.

Instead, I found out that the characteristics of the wider workplace seemed more influential. Teachers who felt that their workplaces encouraged collaborative, cross-departmental working and innovation were more likely to also report school-wide changes to how they carried out assessment.

This made me think that the kind of professional learning that helps primary teachers to change the ways that they do their job takes place during the wider working day, through ongoing conversation with colleagues, rather than within the confines of a staff meeting. When I looked at communication style between teaching colleagues, I also found that the activities which school-wide changes to teaching practice seemed to entail – negotiation and agreement of shared goals; reflection upon and review of progress; sharing of best practice; questioning and clarification of aims – were underpinned by an open and dynamic communication style that facilitated the involvement of all in discussion and decision-making. This research was conducted with primary teachers in state-maintained primary schools, a working environment which we might consider somewhat removed from the more selective and purposeful atmosphere of a university. However, it will be interesting to see whether the characteristics of the working environment and the interpersonal communication style experienced by academic staff plays a role in enabling programme-wide changes to aspects of practice as a result of participating in TESTA.