Tuesday 24 September 2013

Is anybody else getting tired of the discussions about raising the standards of our teaching?  I am!  Not because I don’t wholeheartedly agree that we need to improve teaching and learning through better delivery, but because I think this only tells half of the story.

To have educational impact teaching improvements need to be coupled with a change in our approach to assessment.  Brown et al. (1997) strongly emphasize that “if you want to change student learning then change the methods of assessment”.

Image Credit: Flickr UGL_UIUC CC
In research intensive universities we have traditionally focused on developing assessment relating to research skills.  This focus is reflected and encouraged through the research skills development framework.  If we had the available jobs in research science for all our graduates (coupled with a student desire to actually follow a research career) there would be nothing wrong with this approach, but this is clearly not the case.   The majority of our students will follow alternative pathways and we need to develop authentic assessment to reflect these pathways.

Authentic assessment described simply is the development of ‘real world skills’ in our students.  Using authentic assessment principles we need to first decide on who’s ‘real world’ we are thinking about.  Given only a small proportion of our students will become researchers, I believe that science assessment should enable the development of generic skills used by the wider workforce. When I talk about the real world I mean the one outside of academia. 

The research 

If your thinking about how to develop authentic assessment, I find the seven propositions in the OLT project Assessment 2020 provides useful guidance.  

Taking the ‘Assessment 2020’ propositions one step further is a recent paper by Ashford-Rowe et al. (2013) which defines eight critical elements of authentic assessment.  These elements suggest that authentic assessment should:
  • Be challenging enough so that it reflects real world situations and tasks with a requirement to do more than just reproduce knowledge.
  • Focus on the creation of a product (or performance) that demonstrates the application of skills and knowledge.
  • Develop knowledge, skills or attitudes that are more widely applicable and transferable to situations outside of the assessment task. e.g. the knowledge should not be domain specific.
  • Produce a product or performance that accurately reflects the needs of the real world.
  • Use tools and tasks during the assessment that are reflective of real world situations.
  • Give students the opportunity to receive sufficient feedback throughout the assessment process and provide feedback to the teacher.
  • Give students the opportunity to collaborate with each other.
  • Give students the opportunity to develop their own metacognition through self-reflection and evaluation.
Providing authentic experiences? Image credit: Flickr GlacierNPS CC

Putting it into practice

Using the principles of authentic assessment I developed an assessment task for my environmental monitoring unit.  In this assessment, the students had to contribute to citizen science projects of their choosing and then critique the scientific methodology and design of the experiment.  This gave them the opportunity to contribute to real science projects across national and international boundaries. The assessment task wasn’t perfect first time around, but the students seemed engaged and they made significant contributions to community projects.

While developing research skills is an example of authentic assessment and undoubtedly provides many useful skills in science students (e.g. critically evaluating information and developing arguments), I think that we need to get real about where our students end up and ensure that we pay appropriate attention in the curriculum to develop skills for them to succeed.


Ashford-Rowe K, Herrington J & Brown C  (2013)  Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.819566                   

Brown, G., J. Bull, and M. Pendlebury. 1997. Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education. London: Routledge

Rowan Brookes is a lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences.  She coordinates the Bachelor of Science Advanced - Global Challenges and the Bachelor of Environmental Science.  You can find her on Twitter @FutureSciEd or her webpage
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Wednesday 18 September 2013

I write from the perspective of a physicist who works closely on a range of research projects at Monash University. All of my research activities are collaborative, involving ongoing discussions with the small groups (say, three to five researchers) in which I work most effectively.

My discipline-based science research collaborations can all be viewed from an education perspective as a form of peer learning. This is the topic I want to examine in today's post.

Working on research problems in small groups is like a small student cohort setting and then completing its own group assignment by coming up with an important and interesting unanswered question, and then solving it.

These research discussions involve individual members of the “study group” throwing up an idea for progress on the given problem, which is then critiqued by other researchers in the cohort.  A particular individual’s understanding of a given idea, whether or not the said idea is their own, is deepened by the peer-learning process of seeking to convince the individual’s colleagues of the correctness and relevance of their idea.  The idea may stand the test of such dialectic, in which case it is incorporated into the “group assignment” and possibly developed further.  If the idea fails the test of the group dialectic, it may be discarded entirely in favour of another competing idea, or aspects of the broken idea may be incorporated into a new way forward. Ultimately, the group assignment is written up as a research paper.

David Boud defines peer learning as “students learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways” (This quote is taken from http://www.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Tomprof/postings/418.html , which also outlines some benefits of peer learning).  If "students" is replaced with "researchers" in the above quote, then you have an accurate description of most of my research collaborations!

Perhaps viewing peer learning in the classroom as an extension of peer learning in research groups may assist discipline-specific researchers in strengthening the effectiveness of their teaching by incorporating peer learning into their classroom teaching?  Better still, perhaps those discipline-specific researchers who have yet to enter the classroom may derive additional confidence to do so by recognizing parallels between the peer learning within their research groups and peer learning in an undergraduate setting?

NB: Thanks to Rowan Brookes for pointing out the peer learning link above, for feedback which improved this post, and also for pointing me to the open-access journal on peer learning at http://ro.uow.edu.au/ajpl/ .  Thanks to Rowan Brookes, Rebecca Adam and Amelia Grevis-James for getting this blog off the ground!

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