confessions of a worried teacher

critical inquiries into westernised higher education

Tag: Assessment



Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.




Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.


It’s amazing what happens over coffee: or deterritoralising the curriculum (a #rhizo15 story 2)


I had meant to take a break from #rhizo15 but instead found myself taking a coffee break that brought me right back.

Over coffee, at the end of a year’s teaching (my first full academic year in the job), myself and a colleague got to reflecting on how the year had gone and how we might develop things next year.  In the back of my mind was the article by @sbayne that I think was put out there by@NomadWarMachine (not @davecormier) and the task he proposed for #rhizo15 this week.

So, I don’t know to what extent this musing is a detailing of my ‘subjective’:

How do we design our own or others learning when we don’t know where we are going? How does that free us up? What can we get done with subjectives that can’t be done with objectives?

or a working out of ideas partly inspired by Sian’s article.

During the coffee chat it became clear that while happy with the main course I oversee (for me still new, to my colleague now possible tired), having made various changes to emphasise the challenges I wanted participants to engage with rather than just go through content (the content instead working as a vehicle for engaging with concepts and problems), I felt a desire to push explore the possibility of creating more open/connected/distributed forms of learning.

My recent engagement with digital scholarship and #connectedlearning has propelled me to consider other options, and to think about how I might hack my own course, hybridise it.

The stimulats, very much driven my the discussions in #tjc15 and #rhizo15, are:

  • think of resources rather than content: while remaining with the striated texture of the current course (a pre-defined syllabus and form of assessment) how might we reconfigure these so that they are more like initial sets of resources organised around difficult ideas that we face as university educators?  How do we communicate that intent and encourage a mode of engagement with them that is more akin to ‘hacking’ than consumption?
  • can aspects of the syllabus be participant driven? one idea that occurred to me as we talked was of playing with the current timetabling in order to facilitate more participant engagement and potential to generate participant relevant content.  Folks did find useful the clear signposting (and if you read my #rhizo15 story previously you know how attached I am to signposting) of key texts/resources that were organised around difficult or challenging ideas.  Rather than being tied to the fortnightly 3 hour workshop (at the end of busy days) why not have the participants work in cross-disciplinary groups (like action learning sets) to work on the key texts and find their own texts, all the time focusing on the critical questions for practice this reading produces (semester 1 is more theory focused while semester 2 is more practice focused); and have shorter workshops that model many of the ideas we promote.  I think this is about pushing my interest in practice theory further to see how it can reconfigure the current approach.  It is also about playing with the potential for learning to come out of the connections folks make within the course.
  • making emergent objectives explicit: while we will have learning objectives, the reality is that folks operate with their own emergent objectives.  They are motivated differently to participate in the course, this motivation often changing over time, and in relation to different aspects of the course.  I make the assumption that they are all strategic learners.  So why not make emergent objectives an explicit structure within the course?  This would be transient, and would help them see their own students differently, more positively.  Emergent objectives could become points for reflecting on what the course should be dealing with, what the difficult ideas and issues are, and therefore the content required.
  • disrupting my role as obligatory point of passage: and how can I dislodge myself as the obligatory point of passage, the ultimate point of authority? I have tried to break this down a little already by sharing with them my own critical reflections on the course (see here and here for examples).  But by constraining the power to archive materials in the institutional VLE a clear hierarchy is established.  I will not pretend that I am removing the hierarchy since I am after all a final arbiter, the one who, institutionally, is responsible for assessment – this Sian Bayne’s struggle to institute smooth spaces within striated institutions.  But this can be disrupted by distributing the curating role across as many participants as possible through the use of social bookmarking to share resources (as well as the VLE).  Also, could we introduce aspects of peer review?

What have I done here?  I think I have, in the doing of this post, identified an emergent objective – that is the way my participation in #rhizo15 can feed back into my thinking about my own practice as an educator; working with the play of smooth and striated space.

But also, it is subjective in that it speaks to how I want to constitute my self as practitioner – what kind of educator can I be?

Somewhere between the audit culture and authentic planning: explorations of learning outcomes

This is another entry from the learning journal I am keeping alongside my ‘teaching’ of a module on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education.  It parallels the kind of ‘reflective learning‘ activity the lecturer/participants are asked to engage in.  I am using it to develop my own appreciation of this new field of practice for me (academic development) and to utilise the course to help me critically reflect on curriculum design – a kind of reflection-in and on-practice.  This entry examines the module focus on learning outcomes as a contribution to the lecturer/participants undertaking a module redesign exercise.

Learning Outcomes

Learning outcomes can often appear as managerial or administrative hurdles with little obvious relation to the ‘real’ job of teaching. Also, research suggests that within any one institution (or sub-unit within an institution) there can be varied approaches to an outcomes-based approach to learning and teaching. Although I am sensitive to the advantages of an outcomes approach to teaching and learning, I had not examined the learning outcomes of the courses I was co-ordinating, until now. It seems to me that an outcomes approach poses at least two key challenges for educators:

  • Are we teaching our discipline or our students?
  • Are we teaching for success or exclusion?

The first challenge refers to the tension that arises from the apprenticeship academics receive (usually the PhD) as part of their entry into academia. This is based on the discipline and subject knowledge, and specifically on research training in the discipline – not on teaching. So, we become a ‘sociologist’ or an ‘engineer’ rather than engender an approach to ‘sociological education’ or ‘engineering education’. It is no surprise then that we fall back on the ‘signature pedagogies’ we might have encountered that were teacher and content centred. We see ourselves as teaching the subject rather than educating students.

The second challenge is posed by John Biggs and his idea of ‘constructive alignment’. In his article ‘What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning’ he challenges higher education educators to face the exclusionary effect of habitual ways of teaching. Specifically he argues that much teaching assumes a student who has already mastered the threshold concepts and ways of practicing the discipline. Consequently, students who might still be operating in the liminal space of uncertainty can be ‘left behind’ or fail. Failure is then couched in terms of the student rather than teaching strategies. Biggs has proposed a particular planning technology to deal with some of these issues and to maximize the opportunity to design-in success and inclusion – constructive alignment. He asserts that by focusing on what we want students to come away with from the educative experience, rather than the subject matter we want to teach, we place learning at the centre of our activity. Furthermore, we need to plan for alignment between these outcomes and both the teaching activities and assessment methods.

Below I outline how I see the learning outcomes align with the teaching activities and assessment methods for CEL260:

Screen Shot 2015-03-07 at 17.43.36

For the most part there seems to be a reasonable alignment between the teaching activities and the learning outcomes. The learning outcomes and teaching activities suggest a process of learning that would cover a number of sessions and avoid too much precision. This both allows for more nuanced focus in each session, allowing for a degree of improvisation and possible collaboration over the exact content to be engaged with (participants may drive a focus on specific issues not planned for by me as the co-ordinator).

Being broad in this way the learning outcomes cannot clearly indicate the depth or breadth of learning aimed for. For instance, the first learning outcome does not specify exactly what is meant by ‘identify’. What depth of identification is required? What range of ‘key theories’ constitutes an adequate understanding? In particular, to what extent would participants be required to understand the range of debates around teaching and learning, such as those related to learning outcomes? This specificity is largely provided by the selection of resources and the particular methods of participation utilised. Even if I were to propose a more inquiry-based or collaborative approach to developing course content, it is likely that this would be restricted. The difference would lie in the value placed on different approaches rather than on the range of content dealt with.

There are likely, then, to be emergent learning outcomes that reflect the ‘corridor of tolerance’ available. That is learning outcomes will emerge as a consequence of mine and the participants’ interests at the time, as well as the energy levels that each might have at their disposal (Hussey & Smith 2008). However, the degree of ‘diversion’ from the syllabus will be limited since each session in the module is related to all others and provides a basis for the module in semester 2.

However, the degree of deviance may be fairly broad and open up some potential for more negotiation about the actual content of each session. The whole course was configured around some key concepts – paradigm shift from teacher to student centred learning; signature pedagogies; threshold concepts/deconstructing the discipline; deep/strategic/surface learning. In that sense the actual content or subject matter is less important. It is these central concepts that provide the basis for an integrative approach to the curriculum rather than content. Consequently, I disagree with Hussey and Smith’s suggestion that for a module learning outcomes do little more than provide a list of content. This disagreement might have something to do with the nature of the course. As an academic development programme the PgCert is not tied to subject matter in the same way that a more established discipline might be. The ‘signature’ of academic development work is given more by its pedagogy than by its content matter.

For the moment, then, I am happy enough with the learning outcomes as stated. This ‘happiness’ is based in part on the understanding that there will always be emergent learning outcomes that reflect something of the particular tone of the interactions that take place. These cannot be pre-planned. But, it does raise a question for me about the degree to which the content could be negotiated.

The diagram above does raise another issue for me though. This relates to the method of assessment.

As it is currently represented the use of the reflective learning journal might appear a rather blunt instrument for assessing the specified learning outcomes. This will be looked at again when I discuss ‘assessment’. For the moment I want to generate some questions:

  • How suitable are the learning outcomes when the method of assessment stresses higher order cognitive functions?
  • What might the relationship between learning outcomes and assessment look like when you take into account both the in-class assessment and the formative feedback provided over the duration of the module?
  • What balance between ‘academic rigour’ (perhaps suggested by the first learning outcome) and professional practice development should there be on such a course, and how could this be captured in the assessment method.

There is much more detail to the assessment method than articulated in the label ‘Reflective Learning Journal’. It certainly begs the question as to what kind of reflection is demanded and how this might relate to ideas of critical thinking.

John Biggs (2012) What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning, Higher Education Research & Development, 31:1, 39-55

Kerry Dobbins, Sara Brooks, Jon J.A. Scott, Mark Rawlinson & Robert I. Norman (2014): Understanding and enacting learning outcomes: the academic’s perspective, Studies in Higher Education

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2003) The Uses of Learning Outcomes, Teaching in Higher Education, 8:3, 357-368

Trevor Hussey & Patrick Smith (2008) Learning outcomes: a conceptual analysis, Teaching in Higher Education, 13:1, 107-115

M.W. Jackson & M.T. Prosser (1989) Less lecturing, more learning, Studies in Higher Education, 14:1, 55-68

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