Dr John Latsis, Henley Business School
Year(s) of activity: 2013-14
In the postgraduate module Managing People and Organisations (MMM048), provided by the School of Leadership, Organisations and Behaviour, assessment methods were altered in a manner that was mindful of the increased internationalisation and marketisation of UK Higher Education, in order to assist the transition of international students.
- To provide a method of assessment that fit the needs of international students less acculturated to UK Higher Education
- To design this method of assessment so that it does not disadvantage more culturally expert students.
- To have the first assessment of the module prepare students for essay-writing for further assessments.
Results from previous years of MMM048 revealed that students on the module struggled with the first assessed essay, but showed significant improvement for their second assessed essay. In particular, the results suggested a difficulty for international students, who constituted over 80% of module students, to acculturate themselves to the expectations of UK Higher Education. Specifically, linguistic competence in written coursework, understanding of the requirements of critical engagement and argumentation in essay writing, and the needs of some students for individual follow-up meetings to discuss module content, were issues that needed to be addressed.
Potential solutions, such as engaging in targeted small group tutoring, or simplifying the content of the module, were unacceptable. Engaging in targeted small group tutoring would negatively impact the workload of teaching staff, to the detriment of other duties, and would result in those groups that received said teaching having an unfair advantage. Simplifying the intellectual content of the module was undesirable, as the content of the module consistently received good feedback, and to do so would give a false impression of what was expected of students in their postgraduate study. Additionally, as students in the bottom quartile of the mark distribution generally showed evidence of improvement over the course of the module, this suggested that the content was not itself too difficult.
What was developed was an extended essay plan as a form of assessment, a hybrid solution that maintained the essay-writing element of the first part of the module, but allowed students to gain a hands-on insight into the expectations of UK postgraduate Higher Education. Students were provided with an essay plan handbook, explaining the expectations of how an essay would be written, providing a ready-made generic structure, with subheadings, approximate word counts for each section, and the usual guidelines with which students are provided. The essay plan is shorter than the full essay which previously formed the first assessment of the module (1000 words rather than 2500 words), and is worth less (15% rather than 30%). Additionally, the requirement for students to write in continuous English prose, which students might initially find difficult, is softened, as students are allowed to develop their ideas in bullet points in order to save space. The development of the extended essay plan format was carried out in consultation with the In-Sessional English Support team, in order to assure that the template was worded as clearly as possible.
The net effect of the change was significant. The failure rate for the first assessment dropped to 0%, and there was a reduced failure rate in the module as a whole. Student satisfaction surveys for the module achieved higher scores than previously, and students reported in casual conversation that they would continue to use the template and accompanying handbook to help them write their essays for other modules, as they found it a very useful tool to organise their thoughts and keep their arguments on track.
The essay plan format is beneficial for the following reasons:
- It replaced the need for coaching to be provided in the context of a large class size with a variety of individual needs.
- It makes explicit the cultural clues that students with experience of the UK Higher Education system understand through verbal communication, but that have proved difficult to communicate verbally to students without this experience.
- It provides an explicit performance standard with instructions and mark-breakdowns that makes assessment clear and maintains standards of fairness across all levels of ability.
- As a result of the format including multiples questions, one of which is more difficult than the others, there is still the possibility for the most able students to demonstrate their ability by effectively addressing a difficult topic.
- It draws the markers’ attention away from linguistic ability and puts the emphasis on clarity of argument and quality of ideas, re-uniting a divided classroom.
While the new approach does reduce the flexibility that students have to express themselves within the constraints of the template, and benefits non-native English users more than it does native English users, the format allows students to be assessed on their understanding of the module content, and their ability to reflect critically upon it and construct a coherent argument.
The essay plan assessment format has continued to be utilised within MMM048. There have been some minor changes to the wording of the essay plan and associated guidance as a result of input from the University Study Advice team. While comparisons between cohorts are difficult to perform, it is encouraging that marks on MMM048 improved last academic year.