We bring together Business School alumni and their former teacher Professor Berry O’Donovan to share their thoughts on meaningful assessment. The alumni joined us form the UK and various other parts of the globe. Who do we have in the virtual room?
Karen studied Business Administration and Management at Brookes and graduated “too long ago to remember”. Yaqub, currently residing in London and working in real estate, graduated in Business and Japanese in 2018. Joining us from Ghana, (from the “top of a mountain”) is Libby who graduated in 2016 and currently works for a Healthcare company managing the accounts. Finally, with a beach hut in Costa Rica as the back drop, we have Gustav, a 2014 graduate on his travels whilst doing work for the UN and being a part-time Masters student at Portsmouth.
What does meaningful assessment mean to you?
Karen: “The Team Challenge [a very practical physical activity to illustrate assessment] which we undertook has lived with me. Even 15 to 20 years after completing, it brings back so many memories. It made learning more interesting and real by actually applying it to real life. It was a whole day spent working in randomly assigned teams. It was fascinating to see how my fellow students solved problems. Challenges included ‘The web’, getting the whole team through a web of rope the quickest; ‘Sheepdog’, definitely a trust exercise; ‘Mathematical challenge’, trying to find the person on the team who could remember how to apply Pythagoras’ Theorem; ‘Water carrier challenge’, transferring water from A to C using tubes with many holes in them. This took place at the end of the first year and it was a great chance to have fun and bond with other students before the summer break. I think we were critiqued by students from year two and three on how well we performed both individually and as a coherent team, what our leadership style was perceived to be and the overall assessment of what had worked well and not so well in the teams.”
Berry: “Yes, at its height, The Team Challenge involved approximately 500 students. We did have alternatives for students with disabilities and tasks that highlighted skills that international students generally held. It was a good fun day outside on the Wheatley playing fields and students often made friends for life through the experience. Students evaluated their performance in terms of problem-solving and teamwork in a group presentation. It was the highlight of the first year for all business students.”
Libby: “For me, it’s about boosting your confidence in real-life activities. In the final year, we ran a mock recruitment assessment centre where we designed and delivered activities for first year students on the interdisciplinary programmes. This was most meaningful because it gave me confidence in speaking in front of people which has been even more relevant in life since university. Another one was the first-year assessment where we researched and were asked to look beyond a headline. I now use this in my day-to-day job”.
Berry: “This still runs and has now spread into other business programmes. Currently around 200 first and final years take part on this on a Saturday just before Easter.”
Yaqub: “I remember we did a mock proposal for an investment. It gave me project management and interpersonal skills, independent problem-solving… this stuff has real-world application.”
Gustav: “For me ‘Design-based methodologies’, where we used critique as a form of judgement, was the most valuable. Assessment should be for us, the students, to evaluate where are at at (not for the professor to do this) and to accrue knowledge and inform my internal understanding. The process of conversations with the lecturer is more important than anything else – this is where the meaningfulness comes from”.
“The process of conversations with the lecturer is more important than anything else – this is where the meaningfulness comes from”
Libby: “My coaching conversations with Berry were when I learned the most. How you can get the most of yourself out of it. I can critique myself much more now as a result of that experience”.
Karen: “It was so different to what I experienced at school. I tried to escape school as much as I could and I was 30 by the time I came to Brookes. if I’d known how different it was, I would have gone earlier. I was really happy in terms of terms of meaningful assessment. It was fantastic and I have really taken the knowledge with me. I have worked in marketing, sales, customer services and have been able to apply these things and get on with my life.”
Berry: “It’s so heartening to hear all of this. Not everything about working in academia is! There are many different aspects of assessment – challenge; confidence; authenticity; critique; finding your own voice; self-evaluation and evaluating the work of others. I have been researching into assessment for 20 years about what, out of that list, is most important. It’s important to remember assessment is assessment. It is complex and there are many important aspects and outcomes involved. It is a vehicle for learning, self-expression and finding your own voice but is about measurement as well and therefore needs to be fair and consistent. We need to be careful about obsession with grades and marks but in the end you have to make some judgement between a fail and pass. Effective dialogic feedback and further dialogue is all important in terms of improvement though. It’s so pleasing to hear this happened!”
“There are two sides to ‘assessment’: 1) the systemic need to provide proxies for the evaluation of ‘merit’ and 2) the individual need to develop students’ own understanding, knowledge and capacity to operate in the world.
Gustav: “There seems to be two sides to ‘assessment’ – 1) the systemic need to provide proxies for the evaluation of ‘merit’ and 2) the individual need to develop students’ own understanding, knowledge and capacity to operate in the world. The ideal is to bring these two things closer together. In technical fields like Engineering there’s clear assessment criteria but in creative critical subjects it’s much more subjective. I didn’t spend lots of time with lecturers but I did with course mates and we marked and shared each other’s marks and feedback. For me it’s about how can you build the right environment.”
What about feedback as part of meaningful assessment?
Libby: “Personally, I don’t remember any grades, I didn’t look for the percentage; it was all about feedback and the conversation. The number was irrelevant. Development points were the most important part”.
“it was all about feedback and the conversation. The number was irrelevant”.
Yaqub: “The most interesting thing in assessments is when they are open-ended. When you’re in a job there are so many different ways of doing things and thinking outside the box is really important”.
“The most interesting thing in assessments is when they are open-ended. When you’re in a job there are so many different ways of doing things and thinking outside the box is really important”.
What is the relationship between meaningful assessment and student learning?
Karen: “In order to take part on the course there was a lot of reading. Learning was there but, through the assessment, it was being applied, that was the difference”.
Libby: “The assessment should give you skills which you are going to draw on for the rest of your life. As a mathematician, I had always thought in terms of ‘right and wrong’ but at university I realised there’s so many ways of answering or approaching something”.
“The learning will be maximised if there’s an agile method of assessment. You get what you measure; so if measuring ability to take an exam, that’s what you’ll get but if the aim to is to teach critical thinking, that’s much more difficult to measure. Assessment needs to be multi-faceted.”
Gustav: “The learning will be maximised if there’s an agile method of assessment. You get what you measure; so if you’re measuring someone’s ability to take an exam, that’s what you’ll get but if the aim to is to teach critical thinking, that’s much more difficult to measure. Assessment needs to be multi-faceted.”
Berry: “I so agree with all of you. What I want to achieve with assessment is not ‘memorisation’ in any way. It’s much more the academic skills, the criteria, evidence-based reasoning. That makes it feel more authentic. It’s lovely to hear you echo that.”
Which assessment/s did you learn the most from?
Karen: “I took something from everything which was asked from me. It wasn’t just reproducing facts, I gained a lot of confidence and am now much more open to different perspectives. Now, if someone else thinks something can be done differently I take that as a positive and think to myself ‘I can learn something here’.”
Libby: “I got much more out of group assessments”.
Gustav: “Conversations with my teacher. It provided me with other ways of thinking. The meaningfulness came largely from the people I was working with. Grades were only meaningful because they opened doors for me. I had to learn how to learn. Friends I gained through those modules are friends for life.”
Which assessment/s did you learn the least from?
Libby: “The Accounting one. We were paired with a random person and some of them didn’t care so you can end up doing the work on your own.”
Yaqub: “The group projects were both the best and worst. If a person is not interested then you end up doing the work yourself but if you are in a group with really strong opinions then you are positively challenged. Like Gustav, I still talk to those people today”.
What have been the key highlights of this conversation?
Berry: “It’s about finding your voice, the process and ‘becoming’ in terms of personal growth. This has really come out of this conversation which is fantastic”.
“When I left the university, I was a different person and how Berry designed the assessments is a big part of that.”
Libby: “The difference between the 18 and 22 year old me was massive. When I left the university, I was a different person and how Berry designed the assessments is a big part of that and Berry herself is a big part of that! It’s been lovely to reminisce.”
Karen: “It’s so lovely to hear others have had the same experience as me!”
After the Alumni Reunion, I asked Berry to recommend some resources on our theme:
1. Advance HE’s publication ‘Assessment and Feedback in a post-pandemic era: a time for learning and inclusion.’ It Includes case studies and disciplinary examples all focusing on the underlying themes of assessment and feedback ‘post-pandemic’. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/assessment-and-feedback-post-pandemic-era-time-learning-and-inclusion
2. I really like this book on feedback as it focuses on learning-focused feedback research rather than the more traditional transmission-focused feedback – Winstone N. and Carless, D. (2020) Designing effective feedback processes in higher education.
3. Modesty aside, I think this gives a fresh and useful perspective on some of the tricky issues involved in improving student satisfaction with assessment practices – O’Donovan, B. (2017) ‘How students’ beliefs about knowledge and knowing influence their satisfaction with assessment and feedback’. Higher Education, 74(4): 617-633. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0068-y
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