Using an enquiry-based learning assessed work activity to enhance assessment and feedback

Professor Paul Almond, School of Law
p.j.almond@reading.ac.uk

Overview

9367A project to encourage students enrolled on a Part Three module within the School of Law, Criminology (LW3CRY), to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the links between criminological theory and policy, through a redesign of the Assessed Work project contained within the module. Results have suggested that the project was successful in achieving its objectives, and there were additional, unexpected benefits.

Objectives

  • Rework the assessment for the module so that students are better able to gain an understanding of the links between criminological theory and policy.
  • Utilise the principles of enquiry-based learning.

Context

One of the established learning outcomes for LW3CRY requires students to: ‘Apply theoretical criminological concepts to practical issues within the field of crime, law and social control’. Students had in the past tended to struggle to make meaningful connections between these two things, and to take a very simplistic view of the theory-policy relationship.

Implementation

The assessment project for the module was reworked so that it utilised principles of enquiry-based learning and required students to do something with the substantive material that they engaged with during the course. Students were set the task of producing a report for a fictional client, the ‘Minster for Justice’, recommending how a budget of £100m should be spent (on policy choices drawn from a list of available options). This open-ended requirement forced students to define their own terms for answering the question, in that they had to construct and apply the theoretical framework that explained and justified their choices, and settle on a series of recommendations that they put forward. As there is no ‘right answer’ students engage with the process of choosing and justifying rather than reaching a specified ‘correct’ conclusion. The report produced at the end of the project had to clearly explain choices with reference to theory and evidence.

The problem given to the students as the basis of the project was ‘client-centred’, in that they were supposed to be working for the Minister. To this end, the launch document and project materials were formatted in the style of official Government documents and the launch was in the form of a video podcast from the Minister (played by an actor). Project updates were also in the form of video and audio podcasts on Blackboard Learn, and the Minister had his own email address from which to send updates and respond to enquiries. Finally, in order to provide some realism in the ‘client-facing’ research relationship, some details and features of the project were staged so as to be changed or updated as the project progressed.

Impact

The average mark for the assessed work project rose from 60.9% in the previous year to 62.8% when the Project was implemented. In addition, subsequent performance in the examination for the module also improved from 60.1% to 61.2%, demonstrating that the gains in terms of the learning outcomes had carried across from the initial assessment activity.

Reflections

In order to allow this assessment change, the module convenor created the materials and released them via Blackboard Learn, responded to enquiries and provided updates, and then assessed the assessed work reports. Although this involved quite a lot of initial work, the materials and design are reusable meaning that there is a diminishing workload attached to the Project as it is reused in subsequent years.

A couple of problems arose in relation to implementing the project. Firstly, some students were unclear as to what the requirements of a ‘report’ were, and how this should differ in style, structure, and approach from an essay. Despite reassurances that ‘report’ simply meant ‘focused on providing a take-home message about the recommended policies’, they found this terminology confusing. In subsequent versions of the project, more guidance has been provided on what this requires. Secondly, the scope of the project was quite broad (in that students could end up writing small amounts about a large number of policy items), meaning that they were not able to demonstrate the depth of understanding required. Tweaks in the costs of individual items have been introduced to combat this.

Overall, this was successful, and has been utilised in subsequent academic years. It is effectively ‘future-proofed’ in that minor changes to costs, policy choices, and details allow for the materials and project to be reused again. It also involves a very specific problem, reducing opportunities for plagiarism and ‘essay-buying’. An unexpected benefit was the way that this assessment could dovetail with the rest of the course; the use of Blackboard Learn to communicate and store materials increased through-traffic on the course page generally, and it also gave a good focus to subsequent revision classes (the Minister delivers generic feedback and gives suggestions for improvement). The feedback available for this project is easily adaptable in terms of explaining the specific criteria and requirements of the examination; the style of exam question set has been altered in order to achieve ‘constructive alignment’ and ensure that the skills learned in this project are of use in the subsequent assessment.

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