Monday, June 30, 2014

An assessment arms race and the case for slow scholarship

"This research questions the impact of assessment on university teaching and learning in circumstances where all student work is graded. Sixty-two students and lecturers were interviewed to explore their experiences of assessment at an institution that had adopted a modular course structure and largely unregulated numbers of internal assessments. Lecturers rewarded student work with grades and controlled study behaviour with assessment. In some situations it was possible to experience hundreds of graded assessments in an academic year. Students were single-minded when it came to grades and would not work without them. These conditions contributed to competition for student attention and a grading arms race between academics and subjects. In this context, the spaces for achieving certain educational objectives, such as fostering self-motivated learners, were marginalised. Both students and lecturers were unsatisfied with this situation, but neither group could envisage radical change. Students were generally happy to accumulate small marks, while being irritated and stressed by frequent grading. Lecturers were aware of better practices but felt trapped by circumstances. The idea of slow scholarship is introduced to encourage a re-think of such assessment practices, support a positive shift in assessment culture and contribute to the theories of assessment."

Tony Harlanda, Angela McLeana, Rob Wassa, Ellen Millera & Kwong Nui Sima. An assessment arms race and its fallout: high-stakes grading and the case for slow scholarship. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2014.931927

Student’s experiences:
  • Students were being assessed constantly and because of this they had no time to do any of the work required of them outside core-graded curriculum activities.
  • All students regularly missed teaching sessions in order to cope with assessment loads. They also cooperated in small groups to ensure that both assessment deadlines could be met, and that course materials were shared.
  • Students who had high expectation for their grades felt they were always working at sub-optimal levels and thought they could do better work than that handed in. These students seemed more stressed than those with lower expectations, so the impact of frequent summative assessment may not be equal across the student body.
  • Students were stressed by the lack of coordination of assessment tasks between the courses they were taking (up to four a semester) and even between sections of the same course. For example, they found that several assessments could be due at the same time and that lecturers were unaware of all due dates.
  • Students expressed a preference for having many small internal-graded assessments and felt that large assessments were too high stakes. None wanted to revert to a final examination carrying 100% of the marks.

Lecturer’s experiences:
  • Lecturers did not know how many assessments each student was subject to as there was little communication between lecturers, departments and programmes.
  • They were reluctant to reduce the number of assessments, despite experiencing high marking loads. The reason given was that students would then spend all their efforts on tasks that carried marks in other modules. This situation suggested assessment was being used to control students’ behaviour and resulted in competition between teachers and departments.
  • Lecturers felt that they were under student pressure to give marks for any submitted course work, even when they thought this might not be appropriate.
  • It was recognised that overall grades might not reflect overall performance when small marks were given for tasks.
  • Non-graded forms of assessment (i.e. formative assessment) were not considered.

"However, one lecturer suggested that frequent assessment was perfect preparation for a neoliberal world in which students would continue to be assessed, judged and accountable throughout their lives."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Say no mow! Your help needed

Say no mow

Help Plantlife persuade councils to manage "Bee Roads" better: Sign the petition

1. Road verges are the life-giving arteries of the countryside, linking habitats and acting as vital corridors for wildlife to thrive on. They also represent a remnant of our native grassland which has suffered catastrophic losses over the last century.

2. They can act as buffers to some of the most impoverished areas, be they six lane motorways or intensively farmed fields.

3. Combined with railway edges they are the single most viewed habitat in the country, giving millions of people every day direct contact with the changing seasons and colours of the countryside

4. When managed correctly road verges can support remarkable diverse collections of species. The good news is that good management often involve simply doing less, allowing the verge to develop and plants to set seed before cutting takes place.

5. Road verges can be genuine community reserves, people form close relationships with them and there is an army of volunteers who with training can act as the guardians for them.

Monday, June 23, 2014

What do students know?

Epistemology First year undergraduate courses in higher education tend to be designed based on assumptions of students’ prior knowledge. Almost 600 undergraduates at five UK universities, studying biological sciences, were given an MCQ test in their first week at university, based on biology A-level (pre-university examination) core criteria. Results demonstrated low-level retention of basic concepts. There was variation between subject area and examination board and an inverse correlation between MCQ score and time since taking A-levels. By discovering what students remember from their pre-university learning, undergraduate courses can be designed to be more student-focused and so develop a deeper-learning teaching strategy. The results also suggest that, if A-levels are to be redesigned to enhance their impact for students entering higher education, creating programmes which encourage retention of key concepts should be a key factor to consider.

Harriet Jones, Beth Black, Jon Green, Phil Langton, Stephen Rutherford, Jon Scott & Sally Brown. Indications of Knowledge Retention in the Transition to Higher Education. Journal of Biological Education 20 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/00219266.2014.926960

Friday, June 20, 2014

Barriers To Biology Fieldwork

Quadrant This paper considers a range of factors that may contribute to an unwillingness or inability of teachers to participate in the teaching of biology through fieldwork. Through a synthesis of the views of both pre-service teachers in training and primary school teachers in practice we explore the relative importance of a wide range of potential barriers and potential responses to them in the context of the wider literature. We conclude that although fieldwork may be impeded by the interaction of a wide range of individual barriers, including an individual’s predisposition towards the outdoors, it is possible to group interacting barriers into two main areas: school culture and teacher confidence. It is also apparent that barriers may assume different levels of significance when considered in general terms rather than when applied to a particular context and that the significance of barriers may change through time. Encouragingly, we have also shown that in-service teachers have a willingness to overcome these barriers.

Scott, Graham W., Margaret Boyd, Lisa Scott, and Derek Colquhoun. Barriers To Biological Fieldwork: What Really Prevents Teaching Out of Doors? Journal of Biological Education ahead-of-print (2014): 1-14.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What has taxonomy ever done for us?

"If taxonomy and systematics have a range of educational benefits, why have they been squeezed from university curricula in many countries, including the UK? Thirty years ago, most first year biology undergraduates would have been able to identify a range of common animals and plants, skills which their degree courses would expand on. Nowadays this is typically no longer the case, many courses failing to develop identification skills, despite their continued requirement in a range of professions, including environmental consultancy. Some of the reason behind this shift is the fact that fewer staff with a research interest in systematic biology have been recruited to university positions in recent decades, something which at least partly results from the increased use of citation metrics such as journal impact factors to evaluate science quality. Since impact factors reflect the number of workers citing a paper, they are much higher in fields with large numbers of active researchers. With such a scheme a ‘top’ taxonomic journal, of the kind which actually includes species descriptions, might have an impact factor of 3, whilst in cell biology, for example, a similarly prestigious journal may have to score 10 or above. Since impact factors form a key component of exercises to assess university research, such as the UK Research Excellence Framework, they inevitably influence hiring and funding decisions. Taxonomy loses out in this process, and indeed the citation index has been identified as an impediment to the description of the world’s biodiversity. A simple step towards a solution, which makes use of citation metrics, is obvious here – and that is whenever a species name is used in the scientific literature, the author(s) of that name are included, and reference made to the work in which the name was first published. Taxa are hypotheses, after all, and in what other branch of scholarship would one fail to cite the originator of an idea? Bad referencing is something we frequently bemoan of our students, so perhaps it is time for the rest of us to tighten up?"

David Bilton What have taxonomy and systematics ever done for us? Journal of Biological Education 48(3) 17 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/00219266.2014.926653

Monday, June 16, 2014

Seen it all before - Disruption is Dead

Remember how MOOCs were going to disrupt higher education? Remember how technology was going to disrupt ... everything?


The Disruption Machine - What The Gospel Of Innovation Gets Wrong. New Yorker, June 23, 2014.

Why terrorism is good news for scientists

"... there is another cogent reason for the recent demise of the ‘mad’, evil scientist: decreased reliance on scientists to represent the feared ‘Other’ and provide the situations and objects of dread that inspire horror films. There are now alternative ‘competitors’ for that role: insane gunmen, religious fanatics, terrorists, extortionist companies, destroyers of the environment and passionate, violent adherents of many persuasions from animal rights to right-to-life protesters. Since 2001, we have learned to fear most the terrorism and fanaticism arising from political systems and fundamentalism and, underpinning them, the unpredictable madness of despotic or fanatical leaders. As before, the psychology of the unbalanced, evil mind is the real and abiding source of fear, but this is no longer attributed to scientists. The ‘popularity’ of the mad scientist as both fictional character and movie star has declined because we no longer need him. The new face of terror is the terrorist."

Roslynn D Haynes. Whatever happened to the ‘mad, bad’ scientist? Overturning the stereotype. Public Understanding of Science June 10, 2014, doi: 10.1177/0963662514535689

Monday, June 09, 2014

Why I fell in love with Blipfoto

Blipfoto Many years ago I was an enthusiastic photographer (Pentax K, FP4). Now I am on my way to becoming one again.

Over the past couple of weeks I've been making an effort to use the camera in my phone every day. At first, as an ex-photographer with failing eyesight, I didn't enjoy it at all. But gradually I got to like it more and more, pushing the limits of what a phone camera can do (and filling me with the urge to buy a proper camera again after many years). But what had the most impact was joining Blipfoto, an online photo sharing site where users upload one photo a day as a journal entry.

I've had a Flickr Pro account for years and most of the images here are hosted on Flickr, but that community has never engaged me in the way that Blipfoto does. Likewise Instagram. And since I use Flickr for "work", the mix with more personal use is not an easy one. (To say nothing about my reservations concerning Yahoo's stewardship of Flickr.) Using this word-dominated blog as a photo journal also didn't feel right, but what clinched it was the community at Blipfoto. That and the reflective nature of choosing, posting and writing about one image a day rather than the constant barrage of Instagram.

So please subscribe to me on Blipfoto (RSS feed here), and consider joining yourself.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Engaging Students with Audio Feedback

Audio feedback
Students express widespread dissatisfaction with academic feedback. Teaching staff perceive a frequent lack of student engagement with written feedback, much of which goes uncollected or unread. Published evidence shows that audio feedback is highly acceptable to students but is underused. This paper explores methods to produce and deliver audio feedback to a range of students engaged in a variety of academic tasks with the aim of maximising student engagement while working towards a framework which could increase the use of audio feedback by teaching staff.

Alan Cann (2014) Engaging Students with Audio Feedback. Bioscience Education. doi: 10.11120/beej.2014.00027

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Coursework versus exams

Exams Nothing too startling in this paper, but people want evidence, so here it is:

"In the UK and other countries, the use of end-of-module assessment by coursework in higher education has increased over the last 40 years. This has been justified by various pedagogical arguments. In addition, students themselves prefer to be assessed either by coursework alone or by a mixture of coursework and examinations than by examinations alone. Assessment by coursework alone or by a mixture of coursework and examinations tends to yield higher marks than assessment by examinations alone. The increased adoption of assessment by coursework has contributed to an increase over time in the marks on individual modules and in the proportion of good degrees across entire programmes. Assessment by coursework appears to attenuate the negative effect of class size on student attainment. The difference between coursework marks and examination marks tends to be greater in some disciplines than others, but it appears to be similar in men and women and in students from different ethnic groups. Collusion, plagiarism and personation (especially ‘contract cheating’ through the use of bespoke essays) are potential problems with coursework assessment. Nevertheless, the increased use of assessment by coursework has generally been seen as uncontentious, with only isolated voices expressing concerns regarding possible risks to academic standards."

Coursework versus examinations in end-of-module assessment: a literature review. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 23 May 2014 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2014.919628

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Teaching More by Marking Less

"A review of the history and research on grading practices may appear to present a bleak outlook on the process of grading and its impacts on learning. However, underlying the less encouraging news about grades are numerous opportunities for faculty members to make assessment and evaluation more productive, better aligned with student learning, and less burdensome for faculty and students. Notably, many of the practices advocated in the literature would appear to involve faculty members spending less time grading. The time and energy spent on grading has been often pinpointed as a key barrier to instructors becoming more innovative in their teaching. In some cases, the demands of grading require so much instructor attention, little time remains for reflection on the structure of a course or for aspirations of pedagogical improvement. Additionally, some instructors are hesitant to develop active-learning activities - as either in-class activities or homework assignments - for fear of the onslaught of grading resulting from these new activities. However, just because students generate work does not mean instructors need to grade that work for accuracy. In fact, we have presented evidence that accuracy-based grading may, in fact, demotivate students and impede learning. Additionally, the time-consuming process of instructors marking papers and leaving comments may achieve no gain, if comments are rarely read by students. One wonders how much more student learning might occur if instructors’ time spent grading was used in different ways. What if instructors spent more time planning in-class discussions of homework and simply assigned a small number of earned points to students for completing the work? What if students themselves used rubrics to examine their peers’ efforts and evaluate their own work, instead of instructors spending hours and hours commenting on papers? What if students viewed their peers as resources and collaborators, as opposed to competitors in courses that employ grade curving? Implementing small changes like those described above might allow instructors to promote more student learning by grading less or at least differently than they have before."

Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). (2014) CBE Life Sci Education 13(2): 159-166 doi: 10.1187/cbe.CBE-14-03-0054