Lorelle Burton uses an assessment scheme that is designed to build students' academic skills and encourage critical thinking right from the start of their studies. Students submit three pieces of work and take an exam. The first assignment (worth 15%) is designed to help students learn key referencing and research reporting writing standards, and takes the form of an early online test in week 4, which may be retaken as many times as required for the student to master the task. Students are tested on their ability to format a title page correctly and a reference list. They are also taught how to cite material correctly in-text, acknowledging the original source of ideas, and to format quotations correctly. Students submit their answers online – they receive immediate feedback, and this provides an efficient way for students to develop their information and technology skills.
The second assignment, an essay (worth 30%), builds on the first skills-based assignment. Students are required to write a short essay evaluating the effectiveness of various psychological treatments. They tackle this task armed with guidelines, checklists and templates, and can consult the feedback from their first assignment. This assignment is designed to encourage students to evaluate a psychological treatment and to engage critically with the material by evaluating the effectiveness of various treatment approaches.
Students also produce a log of their research activities (worth 5%), documenting their experiences of participating in various psychological research projects. The students are required to reflect on this experience to gain full marks.
Finally, students take a multiple-choice examination to demonstrate mastery of course content (worth 50%).
Learning goals and objectives
The aims of the course are to imbue students with knowledge of some of the basic psychological concepts and methods and to provide them with the opportunity to apply the formal style requirements for essay and report-writing required in the psychology profession. The assessment scheme is designed to develop a supportive and safe learning environment for students, where they can apply new skills and make mistakes without penalty. Lorelle wants to ignite an interest in the material and a passion for the subject, and aims to help students acquire the study skills they need to be confident, self-directed learners. In this way, students will be able to build on these early successes in subsequent courses.
Students taking PSY1010 (Foundation Psychology A). There are 300-400 students in the semester one course offering, three quarters of whom are distance students (from Australia and overseas) with a substantial contingent based in Singapore. Lorelle strives to give all students an equal opportunity to engage with the learning materials, focusing on providing opportunities for the students to get to know each other via the online discussion groups. These communication forums help to break down the distance barriers. Lorelle finds that social collaboration on learning activities facilitates student learning and is a powerful way to help students feel that they belong. She believes that discussion groups are an effective way to support students, and especially helpful for making distance students feel that they are part of USQ. In this forum, students learn how to respect others' opinions and to support each other through the learning journey.
Lorelle describes each assignment's requirements in detail and provides students with a copy of the marking criteria. Students have the opportunity to practise and receive feedback on their assignments before submission. She provides students with examples of good and bad essays to show the expected level of achievement. A rationale is provided with each assignment, showing the students why it is a relevant to their learning and why it is important for their future career in the discipline.
Lorelle re-wrote a US first-year psychology textbook from an Australian perspective in order to provide students with local examples that are relevant to their personal lives and experiences. However, this local focus is balanced with reference to other, more global, examples. She tries to foster an environment of mutual respect, and encourages students to ask questions to minimise any chances of misunderstanding. She logs on to the discussion board at specified times so that students always know when she will be there. She typically answers all queries within 24 hours, by logging on at least three days per week.
Lorelle strives to turn around all assignments within three weeks of their being received by markers, regardless of the number of students enrolled in the course. The development of the online first assignment means that valuable marking time is saved and students receive immediate feedback. Lorelle tries to keep the students engaged and on schedule by providing various weekly learning activities. She finds that students use the message board enthusiastically for discussion – it helps provide informal feedback on student learning and highlights any issues with assignment questions. The message board for this first-year course had 1800 student postings last semester and Lorelle posted less than a fifth of these herself.
Lorelle is responsible for this course across all three campuses, and co-ordinates a team of tutors and markers. She received help from ICT in developing her online test. She always makes a personal comment on each individual student's piece of work, even when marked by someone else. She chases up any students who do not submit their first assignments, and offers guidance to those who appear not to be coping with the course requirements. At the end of the semester, she sends a personal letter to the top 10 students in the course, congratulating them on their performances.
Workloads for students are within the University's guidelines of 5-10 hours a week. Lorelle builds a couple of catch-up weeks into the schedule of the course, just prior to the due dates of their assignments, to help the students stay on track with their studies throughout the semester. This is particularly helpful for first-time university students to develop their study skills.
According to the workload formula, each undergraduate student is allocated 1 hour of marking time per course. However, the online test has produced a considerable time and cost saving for the University. The automatic marking system has reduced the overall marking time in the course by 15-20 minutes per student. Because this is a large first-year course, this equates to a considerable efficiency for both staff and students.
Lorelle holds pre-marking meetings to review the materials and marking criteria and to discuss the marking process and expectations for turnaround. In this meeting, all markers review a marked assignment, for discussion and application of the marking criteria. Each marker is required to mark 10 assignments for moderation by Lorelle. It is important that these first assignments are moderated to ensure that all markers are consistent in their application of the criteria and to check the quality of the feedback provided. If necessary, Lorelle works through additional marked assignments with the marker to achieve consistency. Lorelle then continues to monitor a random selection of assignments as they are returned to her for processing. She finds this process minimises student requests for re-marks and ensures a high standard of marking. General feedback sheets are provided for all students, to complement the personal comments provided on student assignments.
Lorelle says that students who take her course are successful in their efforts to learn the required academic skills and are able to think critically about the issues. Students rate the assignments as challenging but at the end of the course they are able to reflect on their learning and are often pleased when they realise how much they have learned. Comments from staff who teach subsequent courses have indicated that the foundation courses help to equip students with the necessary study skills they need for success.
Problems and advice for others
Teaching first-year students is Lorelle's passion and she is committed to providing all students with a quality learning experience. She believes it is vital to set the appropriate standards and attitudes for learning at the foundation level, and that it is a privilege to teach first-year students the skills they need to be successful lifelong learners in the psychology profession. Lorelle tells her students that the first day of their course is the first day of their professional life as a psychologist and that they need to start thinking and acting like a professional right from the start of their studies.
Lorelle has embraced new technologies as a means of improving the learning environment for students. Wherever possible, Lorelle provides opportunities for students to share experiences among themselves to help them think more independently and critically about the key concepts they are learning.
Students who do not participate in a course need to be followed up to determine the reasons why. Lorelle believes a potential way to help such students engage with the course is to assign a support officer to the cohort of first-year students, to provide advice and support to students on non-academic issues and to help them with any issues that might be impacting on their studies.
Lorelle believes it is important for educators to convey their passion for a subject to their students. She says that teachers should make the effort to understand who their students are, to be open and approachable, and to strive to create safe learning environments. This means respecting the students, being aware of individual differences, and making no assumptions about student learning approaches, or their backgrounds and experiences. Lorelle feels it is important to provide students with many opportunities to engage in learning processes and to help them understand their individual preferences and develop a deep approach to learning.