Alternative Assessment

As per always,  LTHE chat gets me thinking and as per always, 140 characters is insufficient to explore those thoughts fully on twitter. The conversation thread was about inclusivity and the barriers to offering students alternative assessment formats as would be appropriate to specific needs. We’re used to handling obvious stuff such as extensions to deadlines whether that is formally through the ‘approved processes’ or informally as happens from time to time. We also frequently make alternative arrangements for students who miss in-person sessions. This could be by assigning them to specific time slots that meet their request, allowing them to attend a different session if they’ve missed one due to minor illness or a tardy bus, or by shuffling the order of presentations so the student arriving late and panicked has time to settle before presenting. Or perhaps we permit the student with a specific allergy to miss the lab that uses that chemical, and ensure no penalty to the mark. My point is that accommodations happen informally in many many ways.

We often rely on others to tell us what adjustments need to be made to our teaching and assessment. These have an important role to play to ensure that we are aware of students with specific requirements and to advise us on suitable practice to re-level the playing field. While useful, they are often fairly generic and may not be entirely applicable to the subject or assessment.

Let’s go for a straightforward example: writing a lab report. If we break down the practicalities of writing a lab report we get:

  • analysis of data, presentation of data, discussion of data

Analysis is the thinking bit, presentation is the adhering to convention and form bit, and discussion is conveying the thinking bit in some format. Now, the ILOs of an assessment often cover the thinking bit. Sometimes they cover the presenting bit (but that’s often implicit and only appears in the assessment rubric rather than the ILO, that’s a problem we’ll think about at a later date). And rarely they specify how the discussion should be done.

Convention would dictate that a lab report would have specific sections: introduction, results and discussion, conclusion, experimental and possibly supplementary information for that full on journal-esque feeling.  So here’s the question: for which of those sections is it utterly essential that the work be produced on a computer?

If a goal of the assignment is to ensure a student can adequately use MS Word or similar programmes, then the answer is all of it. If the goal of the assignment is for the student to demonstrate their thinking and analysis skills, then the format matters far less than the content. So what alternatives could be offered?

  •  written laboratory report with figures, tables etc, all discussion written down
  • presentation slides with figures and tables etc, all discussion spoken (could be recorded as a screencast or delivered directly to the marker)
  • document with essential aspects formatted (figures, tables, experimental section) and audio recording of discussion

If someone has limited scope to use a computer, producing a fully formatted lab report each time one is required for assessment just because that’s how things are done is challenging.  When the submission format requires substantive effort beyond the analysis and thinking bits (higher order skills than demonstrating ability to format superscripts and subscripts), then the mode of assessment is getting in the way.

The question is then about how these different formats can be marked. And that raises interesting issues about how we, as markers, respond to spoken versus written word. In the three examples above, the student will have done the same amount of data analysis and presentation, and the same amount of thinking. If we separate out presentation/format from content in marking schemes, it’s quite easy to work out how to mark this – we just have to listen instead of reading. And before anyone starts on about referencing and whatnot, it’s perfectly easy to verbally refer to references as Doughnut et al  in speech and provide a reference list. It’s also perfectly easy to say and as figure 1 shows‘.

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