Linda gives her students two complementary assessment items: (1) online quizzes of which students are encouraged to do as many as they wish (each is worth 10%, up to a maximum of 50%), which are designed to develop students' core content knowledge ahead of task (2), an essay (with 50% weighting). This second task involves selecting one of three current newspaper articles and evaluating it using the theories and concepts covered in the course. Students must also demonstrate their ability to use credible sources of information to support the evaluation of the article. In particular, Linda uses the innovative method of requiring her students to evaluate the relevance and credibility of the sources they have used in their essay by annotating their reference list. Students are also assessed on their ability to engage in reflective thinking and self-evaluation about what and how they have learned while completing the assignment.
Learning goals and objectives
Linda wanted to create a balance between students' learning discipline content in the field of human development and learning, and learning how to engage critical thinking and information literacy skills in the application, synthesis and evaluation of this content in relation to their profession. Thus the more challenging essay task, requiring the exercise of higher-order thinking skills of analysis and evaluation, complements the quizzes which require students to use the more basic skills of recognition, recall and basic application. The quiz questions are relevant to both education and human services students, and essay article choices include topics of relevance to both of these areas.
Both tasks are designed to correlate with the course learning objectives that students should be able to: demonstrate knowledge and understanding of major developmental and learning theories; demonstrate knowledge and understanding of important concepts relating to lifespan development; and relate developmental and learning theories and concepts to effective teaching/educational practice. An additional objective of the quizzes is to demonstrate effective uses of ICT, and two further objectives of the assignment are: to integrate and apply material from several topics to relate developmental and leaning theories to ‘real life', as well as to demonstrate knowledge understanding and application of correct communication skills including literacy, presentation and referencing protocols. Linda will be adding a further course objective from 2008 which more explicitly refers to critical thinking and information literacy skills.
In terms of broad graduate qualities and capabilities, Linda is seeking to develop and assess students' discipline knowledge and skills, communication skills (written communication), research and enquiry skills (analytical and critical thinking skills), self-management skills (reflection and self-evaluation), and literacy skills (information literacy).
The target audience is students taking the course FOE2001 (Human Development and Learning) who are mostly in the first semester of their first year at university. The course is a core course for most Faculty of Education students as well as students enrolled in the Bachelor of Human Services Counselling. There are often students from other programs across the university who take the course as an elective. About 560 students from all three campuses and externally take this course in the first semester, with about 150 external students and 30 on campus students taking it in semester 3.
From the beginning of the course, all students receive clear communication and support to help them understand the assessment requirements. Linda provides an exceptionally detailed course book which includes information about all assessment tasks as well as providing a written communication checklist and the marking criteria sheet/rubric for the essay (linked below).
Linda supplements this with detailed step-by-step instructions about how to approach the essay (called the ‘Assignment Starter'), and FAQ responses. These essay resources are designed in such a way that students can work with them independently; however they are also integrated into on-campus and online course tutorials to support and scaffold the students' learning. Through engaging with the essay and related learning materials and activities, students learn how to: clarify the requirements of the task, analyse and evaluate, critique the credibility of sources, structure an essay, and self-assess their progress. Students also discuss audiences and writing styles, general assignment hints and tips, and work through and mark examples of student work from previous years. Students are encouraged to collaborate and form study groups during the process of preparing their assignment; and as well as being noted in the course book, time is spent in tutorials clarifying the difference between collaboration and collusion/copying.
Linda has developed module focus questions and concept maps to assist students to orient to the key concepts and theories which are assessed in the quizzes. There is also a practice quiz available online which all students are strongly encouraged to take before the assessment quizzes so they can familiarise themselves with the ICT environment before attempting assessed quizzes.
Providing timely feedback can be a big challenge in large courses such as FOE2001. Online quizzes have proved very effective for providing students with timely and ongoing feedback throughout the semester with results and feedback released to students as soon as each quiz closes. For the essay, effective feedback is facilitated in a number of ways: (1) use of the detailed marking criteria sheet/rubric which provides students with general feedback about their performance on each criteria, (2) use of marking codes to allow markers to flag within the essay common written communication problems as well as good points eg ‘sp' for ‘spelling, ‘[' for ‘new paragraph required,' ‘4' for ‘reference required,' ‘8' for excellent point, etc, and (3) developing a bank of detailed comments which markers can cut and paste into the comments section of the electronic version of the rubric. The ongoing challenge with the essay is the timely return of over 500 essays to students on multiple campuses and also multiple locations around the world. With up to 10 markers, also in multiple locations, and moderation before return to students, it can be difficult to turn around assignments within three weeks from submission. Linda is currently considering the benefits of moving the assignment forward in the semester and also electronic submission and return.
As course examiner across all campuses and for external students, Linda has led the development of the assessment tasks, processes and resources. The other core campus teaching staff (Patrick O'Brien at Fraser Coast, Jan Stenton at Springfield, and Mark Tyler at Toowoomba) have been integral to the ongoing review, development and implementation of improved assessment practices in the course.
Linda found that setting up this assignment with its detailed guidelines and teaching support processes was very time-consuming, but believes it saves time for her and other course staff that otherwise would be spent sorting out student enquiries and problems arising from misunderstandings and inconsistencies across campuses. Although the processes and materials require minor changes and will be tweaked to continue to improve them, all the resources are essentially developed and can be re-used in future.
Linda has found USQ Library resources such as the Information for Success online presentations invaluable teaching tools for the essay and integrates these into the tutorials.
Moderation is important in this large course to ensure that marking is reliable and fair for all students. Prior to this however, strategies are put in place to reduce marking error and improve consistency between markers: (1) markers are given only one topic to mark rather than having to mark up to three different topics, and (2) markers receive a marking kit which includes tools such as the rubric and markers' codes, the assignment-related resources students have received, and detailed guidelines for the marking of each criteria. Once all marking is completed, Linda undertakes moderation by first looking at the distributions and descriptive statistics for each marker, followed by blind-marking a sample of each marker's assignments to determine reliability and consistency of marking.
All course staff have observed improvements in student understanding and skills related to critical thinking and information literacy skills such as use of credible sources. The average mark for the essay task has improved by about 10% since the task and component skills have been integrated into the teaching and learning of the course. FOE2001 student comments from focus groups (which were held as part of the implementation of a student engagement project funded by an LTSU grant) provide evidence to support student learning about how to engage critical thinking and information literacy skills in the application, synthesis and evaluation of this content:
"The assignment helped develop critical thinking …"
"It will benefit me in the future as I now do have this [critical thinking] skill. It will and has helped in other courses and definitely will be very useful in my future profession."
"I gained …from this course [information literacy] skills … have already established what aspects I can utilise in future studies."
"In tutorials...I discovered the importance of being critical of the sources I derive my information from, as the more credible the source, the stronger my argument becomes. It is my goal for my future learning to pay more attention to the credibility of resources and to evaluate their appropriateness…"
Problems and advice for others
Managing the assessment for a large course is challenging, and developing and revising the processes and resources does take a lot of time, but Linda is pleased with the outcomes in terms of a much improved course that supports student learning outcomes. Linda says that integrating the essay task and associated critical thinking and information literacy skills has meant a reduction in the time spent on teaching content. But she's confident that it's a worthwhile trade-off because students are better able to apply and synthesise the content, and take skills with them that are relevant throughout their degree programs and also support them on their journey towards lifelong learning.
Not everything can be achieved all at once, and the course and assessment approaches in FOE2001 have developed over a period of three years. For Linda, it's now at the point of making minor adjustments and tweaking the course in response to ongoing staff and student feedback.