Within a wider institutional context where academics are asked to reduce points of summative assessment within modules, embedding formative assessment opportunities tailored to the needs of students gains importance. Students have reported increased levels of anxiety when the whole mark for a module hinges on a single point of assessment. The school is therefore making available opportunities for staff to share and discuss best practice. Here are two simple but effective approaches that centre around identifying and practicing skills that were shared:
What did you do, why did you do it?
I ask students to write down the academic skill they would most like to work on and then design and explicitly link back learning activities to the skills identified by students. This semester, for example, my students wanted to learn how to identify and develop an objection to an argument. Students often find it hard to know whether they have identified an objection or whether they are just confused by what they have read. With this in mind, I distinguished between different types of critical questions a reader could (and should) ask when reading a philosophical paper, before asking each student to revisit the required reading and formulate one such type of question. Students were then invited to share, explain, and refine their questions in small discussion groups. Drawing on these peer-review sessions, I was able to highlight the value of formulating critical questions as a way of distinguishing confusion from disagreement on the way to developing an objection to a philosophical argument. Clearly labelling each active learning exercise as ‘formative work’, explaining its purpose, and relating them to their specific skill development goals helps students understand that what they do in classes constitutes formative assessment and feedback opportunities.
Traditionally, seminars involve small groups discussing questions about the week’s reading. Instead, I give students activities where they work in small groups to practice a particular skill based on the topic for that week. Students were expected to do the course reading and watch asynchronous video lectures prior to the seminar. The exercises in the seminar would then be, for example, to create an essay plan revolving around an issue covered in the readings and lecture. As an example, the first 5-10 minutes of the session would be open for any questions the students had about the topic, then the remainder of the session would be devoted to exercises (20-30 minutes), followed by students reviewing the work produced in those exercises and assessing it against the marking criteria, in discussion with one another. In this way seminars can be more directly used to help students practise the skills involved in assessment on the module, while covering the content at the same time.
What was the impact of your practice and how have you evaluated it?
These simple interventions can be evaluated through checking module feedback and comparing the grades awarded with cohorts prior to the introduction of these measures.
Importantly, because these forms of formative assessment happen as part of activities within classes, they do not result in the increased workload for teaching staff that is sometimes associated with incorporating additional formative assessments.
How could others benefit from this example?
- Providing formative assessment opportunities is important to support students, especially in an institutional context where points of summative assessment are being reduced.
- Focussing seminars not only on the content of teaching but also on active skills development can effectively provide such opportunities.
- Focusing on in-class activities as a form of formative feedback can provide these benefits without increasing workload for teaching staff.
If you’re looking for inspiration on active learning exercises that you can use to build formative assessment and feedback opportunities into your teaching, head to the website of Zoë A. Johnson King who provides lots of potential activities there.
Christina Nick, C.Nick@leeds.ac.uk, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
Danielle Bromwich, D.N.Bromwich@leeds.ac.uk, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science
Andy Kirton, A.Kirton@leeds.ac.uk, School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science