Describe, use, and evaluate an assessment activity (or activities) used to check on the learning of either individuals or a group of learners.
I currently teach a unit of an Edexcel Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (AVCE) in Information and Computer Technology at Suffolk College. This unit is assessed using a single assignment, developed during the course and submitted at the end. The subject of the course is advanced database programming using Microsoft Access. The course assignment is intended to assess the knowledge and skill of the students in using this software to solve a realistic problem. The assignment used for this semester is included as appendix A.
The assessment requires the submission of completed work by a specific date in order to receive a mark for the unit. At the end of the course, all the student submissions are marked, and both an alphabetic grade (A-E for a pass, or U for "ungraded") and a point value are awarded. Although the alphabetic grade is useful feedback to the students, it is the point value that is most important, as the total point value awarded for all the units taken determines the overall grade for the course.
Marking of this assignment is criterion referenced. All the students can pass if they all achieve all the objectives, or all can fail if they achieve none (Reece and Walker, 2000, p417). Marking criteria are grouped by grade. Students meeting all the ‘E’ criteria are guaranteed at least an ‘E’ grade, students meeting all the ‘E’ criteria and all the ‘C’ criteria are guaranteed at least a ‘C’ grade, and so on. The explicit nature of these marking criteria helps both to encourage objectivity in the person marking the work, and to aid students in planning and self-checking their work.
On this course, the students are allowed quite a long time in which to prepare their assignments, typically at least two months. This helps to ensure equality of opportunity for all students to spend enough time working on the assignments to achieve a passing grade, even with work and family commitments outside college. A disadvantage of this approach is that some students, who are motivated by deadlines, may find it easier to do nothing until just before the assignment is due. "It is often said that students are not really motivated to learn until they revise for an examination." (Reece and Walker, 2000, p411). Leaving things until the last minute like this is not a good way of getting a good grade, but at least the amount of time allows plenty of opportunity for the teacher to try alternative motivational approaches.
This assessment technique contrasts with the examinations used as assessment in some other units of the course. Curzon (1997) writes: "Assessment must be in a suitable form. That is, it must be structured correctly in relation to subject matter and purpose." An assignment of this nature seems appropriate for this unit. The material covered is broad and includes a teaching of problem-solving approaches, which would be hard to assess in a limited time or with limited access to external resources.
The work submitted as part of the assignment is primarily written, although a small proportion of the marks are awarded for demonstrating the operation of software prior to handing in the assignment, and also for including correct and appropriate graphic images in the associated documentation. The emphasis on the written work does have some equality of opportunity implications. Students with poorer literacy skills are likely to find it more challenging both to understand the requirements and to produce written work to meet them. However, it might be argued that this effect is more strongly felt in examinations, where the student typically has fewer external resources to call on while preparing the work. "The neat, well-turned, correctly paragraphed script may be favoured rather than the script which reaches the same standards of scholarship but which is difficult to read and presented in a crabbed and rebarbative fashion" (Chase, 1979, quoted in Curzon, 1997).
In addition to the formative aspects of the main assignment, most lessons also included classroom exercises and/or homework. This served to provide vital feedback to both the students and teacher about the collective and individual progress of the students and any areas of the subject needing extra reinforcement or alternative teaching.
A formal initial assessment of the students was done at the start of the course before I joined the team. In order to get to know the students as quickly as possible, I also made use of informal assessment techniques such as question and answer sessions, practical exercises and individual discussions. I also studied some of the work produced by these students for other units, and discussed their needs and progress with other teaching staff.
Comment on how the information would be used to evaluate teaching.
The main method of assessment for the unit is largely summative in nature, but there are some formative aspects to the assignment. Students are encouraged to begin work on the assignment as soon as possible and show part completed work, and submit drafts for comment, to teaching staff during development of the solution. This aspect of the assessment provides valuable feedback to the teacher and allows lesson plans and teaching materials to be adjusted as teaching progresses. In the case of this unit, I soon found that many students seemed unsure how to approach a complex assignment, so I produced an introductory handout ("Making Sense of Software Development"), included as appendix B. I also found that some students were struggling with understanding the provided marking sheet (appendix C), so I produced one which seemed clearer (appendix D), and encouraged students to track their progress using it. As more of the students progressed toward a final submission, I was able to provide more-specific advice, an example of which is shown in the "common misunderstandings" handout (appendix E).
Assessment using a staged submission process can provide strong information about which students are comfortable with the teaching and the assessment, and which are having problems with either the course content or motivation and time management. This information is directly useful so that teaching can be adjusted to focus on the topics and students needing the most attention.
Information from assessment can be used in many other ways to inform and evaluate teaching. Raw statistics from assessment (number of submissions, number of passes, grade-spread etc.) can be used to evaluate large scale teaching approaches, and course designs. For example, after studying the relative grades of the same students on the various units they have studied this semester, my course team is now considering rearranging the order of presentation of the units to more evenly balance the student workload.
Similarly, the quality and content of the assessed work can offer valuable information to improve the teaching of future presentations of a course. In the recent analysis of the unit I teach, it was apparent that many of the students taught by one of the other teachers had made use of an automated tool "Database Documenter" to produce many pages of almost meaningless information to "pad out" their assignment. Encouraging the students to produce a concise and meaningful description themselves would both enhance their learning and make for a more useful assessment. The teacher concerned is now considering introducing the "Database Documenter" after submission of the assignment.
After the assessment for this course has been marked, the students’ work goes through a two-stage moderation process. The first stage is internal moderation, in which the content and quality of the work, and of the marking, is compared against that of other students and teachers in the department. This is very valuable as it can highlight inconsistencies in teaching or marking between teachers, and share good practice all of which helps to improve future presentations. The second stage of moderation is external moderation, in which some of the students’ work is passed to an external body. This process helps to ensure consistency between teaching institutions and validate the awarding of grades for the course (Minton 1997, p198 and Armitage et. al. 1999, p142).