Connecting with the Curriculum Framework: Using focus groups to diversify assessment

Dr Madeleine Davies, School of Literature and Languages

Overview

The Department of English Literature (DEL) is organising student focus groups as part of our TLDF-funded ‘Diversifying Assessments’ project led by Dr Chloe Houston and Dr Madeleine Davies. This initiative is in dialogue with Curriculum Framework emphases engaging students in Programme Development and involving them as stakeholders. This entry outlines the preparatory steps taken to set up our focus groups, the feedback from the first meeting, and our initial responses to it.

Objectives

  • To involve students in developing a more varied suite of assessment methods in DEL.
  • To hear student views on existing assessment patterns and methods.
  • To gather student responses to electronic methods of assessment (including learning journals, blogs, vlogs and wikis).

Context

We wanted to use Curriculum Framework emphases on Programme Review and Development to address assessment practices in DEL. We had pre-identified areas where our current systems might usefully be reviewed and we decided to use student focus groups to provide valuable qualitative data about our practices so that we could make sure that any changes were informed by student consultation.

Implementation

I attended a People Development session ‘Conducting Focus Groups’ to gather targeted knowledge about setting up focus groups and about analytical models of feedback evaluation. I also attended a CQSD event, ‘Effective Feedback: Ensuring Assessment and Feedback works for both Students and Staff Across a Programme’, to gain new ideas about feedback practice.

I applied for and won TLDF mini-project funding to support the Diversifying Assessments project. The TLDF funding enabled us to regard student focus groups as a year long consultative process, supporting a review of assessment models and feedback practices in DEL.

In Spring Term 2017, I emailed our undergraduate students and attracted 11 students for the first focus group meeting. We aim to include as diverse a range of participants as possible in the three planned focus group meetings in 2016-17. We also aim to draw contributors from all parts of the undergraduate programme.

To prepare the first focus group:

  • I led a DEL staff development session on the Diversifying Assessment project at the School of Literature and Languages’ assessment and feedback away day; this helped me to identify key questions and topics with colleagues.
  • I conducted a quantitative audit of our assessment patterns and I presented this material to the staff session to illustrate the nature of the issues we aim to address. This tabulated demonstration of the situation enabled colleagues to see that the need for assessment and feedback review was undeniable.

At the first focus group meeting, topics and questions were introduced by the two project leaders and our graduate intern, Michael Lyons, took minutes. We were careful not to approach the group with clear answers already in mind: we used visual aids to open conversation (see figures 1 and 2) and to provide the broad base of key debates. We also used open-ended questions to encourage detail and elaboration.

Group discussion revealed a range of issues and opinions that we would not have been able to anticipate had we not held the focus group:

  • Students said that a module’s assessment pattern was the key determinant in their selection of modules.
  • Some students reported that they seek to avoid exams where possible at Part Two.
  • Discussing why they avoid exams, students said that the material they learn for exams does not ‘stick’ in the same way as material prepared for assessed essays and learning journals so they feel that exams are less helpful in terms of learning. Some stated that they do not believe that exams offer a fair assessment of their work.
  • Students wholly supported the use of learning journals because they spread the workload and because they facilitate learning. One issue the students emphasised, however, was that material supporting learning journals had to be thorough and clear.
  • Presentations were not rated as highly as a learning or assessment tool, though a connection with employability was recognised.
  • Assessed essays were a popular method of assessment: students said they were proud of the work they produced for summative essays and that only ‘bunched deadlines’ caused them problems (see below). This response was particularly marked at Part Two.
  • Following further discussion it emerged that our students had fewer complaints about the assessment models we used, or about the amount of assessment in the programme, than they did about the assessment feedback. This is represented below:

To open conversation, students placed a note on the scale. The question was, ‘Do we assess too much, about right, not enough?’ (‘About right’ was the clear winner).

Students placed a note on the scale: the question was, ‘Do we give you too much feedback, about right, or too little?’ (The responses favoured the scale between ‘about right’ and ‘too little’.)


The results of this exercise, together with our subsequent conversation, helped us to understand the importance of feedback to the Diversifying Assessment project; however, subsequent to the focus group meeting, the DEL Exams Board received an excellent report from our External Examiners who stated that our feedback practices are ‘exemplary’. We will disseminate this information to our students who, with no experience of feedback practices other than at the University of Reading, may not realise that DEL’s feedback is regarded as an example of best practice by colleagues from other institutions. We are also considering issuing our students with updates when assessed marking is underway so that they know when to expect their marks, and to demonstrate to them that we are always meeting the 15-day turnaround. The external examiners’ feedback will not, however, prevent us from continuing to reflect on our feedback processes in an effort to enhance them further.

Following the focus group meeting, we decided to test the feedback we had gathered by sending a whole cohort online survey: for this survey, we changed the ‘feedback’question slightly to encourage a more detailed and nuanced response. The results, which confirmed the focus group findings, are represented below (with thanks to Michael Lyons for producing these graphics for the project):

A total of 95 DEL students took part in the survey. 87% said they valued the opportunity to be assessed with diverse methods.

Assessed essays were the most popular method of assessment, followed by the learning journal. However, only a small proportion of students have been assessed with a learning journal, meaning it is likely that a high percentage of those who have been assessed this way stated it to be their preferred method of assessment.


On a scale from 0-10 (with 0 being too little, 5 about right, and 10 too much), the students gave an average score of 5.1 for the level of assessment on their programmes with 5 being both the mode and the median scores.


34% found the level of detail covered most useful in feedback, 23% the feedback on writing style, 16% the clarity of the feedback, and 13% its promptness. 7% cited other issues (e.g. ‘sensitivity’) and 7% did not respond to this question.

66% said they always submit formative essays, 18% do so regularly, 8% half of the time, 4% sometimes, and 4% never do.

40% said they always attend essay supervisions (tutorials) for their formative essays, 14% do so regularly, 10% half of the time, 22% sometimes, and 14% never do.


Impact

The focus group conversation suggested that the area on which we need to focus in DEL, in terms of diversification of assessment models, is Part Two assessment provision because Part One and Part Three already have more diversified assessments. However, students articulated important concerns about the ‘bunching’ of deadlines across the programme; it may be that we need to consider the timing of essay deadlines as much as we need to consider the assessment models themselves. This is a conversation that will be carried forward into the new academic year.

Impact 1: Working with the programme requirement (two different types of assessment per module), we plan to move more modules away from the 2000 word assessed essay and exam model that 80% of our Part Two modules have been using. We are now working towards an assessment landscape where, in the 2017-18 academic session, only 50% of Part Two modules will use this assessment pattern. The others will be using a variety of assessment models potentially including learning journals and assessed essays: assessed presentations and assessed essays: vlogs and exams: wikis, presentations and assessed essays: blogs and 5000 word module reports.

Impact 2: We will be solving the ‘bunched’ deadlines problem by producing an assessments spread-sheet that will plot each assessment point on each module to allow us to retain an overview of students’ workflow and to spread deadlines more evenly.

Impact 3: The next phase of the project will focus on the type, quality and delivery of feedback. Prior to the Focus Group, we had not realised how crucial this issue is, though the External Examiners’ 2017 report for DEL suggests that communication may be the more crucial factor in this regard. Nevertheless, we will disseminate the results of the online survey to colleagues and encourage more detail and more advice on writing style in feedback.

Anticipated impact 4: We are expecting enhanced attainment as a result of these changes because the new assessment methods, and the more even spread of assessment points, will allow students to present work that more accurately reflects their ability. Further, enhanced feedback will provide students with the learning tools to improve the quality of their work.

Reflections

Initially, I had some reservations about whether student focus groups could give us the reliable data we needed to underpin assessment changes in DEL. However, the combination of quantitative data (via the statistical audit I undertook and the online survey) and qualitative data (gathered via the focus groups and again by the online survey) has produced a dependable foundation. In addition, ensuring the inclusion of a diverse range of students in a focus group, drawn from all levels of the degree and from as many communities as possible within the cohort, is essential for the credibility of the subsequent analysis of responses. Thorough reporting is also essential as is the need to listen to what is being said: we had not fully appreciated how important the ‘bunched deadlines’, ‘exams’, and ‘feedback’ issues were to our students. Focus groups cannot succeed unless those convening them respond proactively to feedback.

Follow up

There will be two further DEL student focus group meetings, one in the Autumn Term 2017 (to provide feedback on our plans and to encourage reflection in the area of feedback) and one in the Spring Term 2018 (for a final consultation prior to implementation of new assessment strategies). It is worth adding that, though we have not yet advertised the Autumn Term focus group meeting, 6 students have already emailed me requesting a place on it. There is clearly an appetite to become involved in our assessment review and student contribution to this process has already revealed its value in terms of teaching and learning development.

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