The purpose of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) events is to understand, improve, and share teaching and learning practices across disciplines and schools to prepare a new generation of lifelong learners.
The second SoTL conference took place on February 6 at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne under the heading ‘The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Student Assessment of Learning’. 20 participants from 4 different schools wrestled with questioning the theories and practices of how to grade, support and enhance student learning and its assessment. It was a lively, interactive affair that often resulted in much head scratching and open-ended conclusions. Therein lies the magic of a SoTL conference: In the world of teaching and learning, things are rarely binary and prescriptive. Reassessing and refreshing teaching methods must become regular practice.
Four different insights and approaches as to how teachers could effectively employ student assessment of learning were presented during the conference.
1. New approaches to grading student internships
Ruth Puhr, Faculty Development Advisor at Les Roches started off proceedings with a look at how to best apply a flexible, formative approach to grading first year internships in hospitality education. After noticing increased dissatisfaction regarding Pass or Fail grading, Ruth decided to research more holistic grading methods that could lead to better pedagogical and learning outcomes. All her findings led to a more adaptive approach based on:
- Inquiry-based, reflective learning
- Adaptive content
- Flexible timing
- The choice of cooperative learning
- Assessment as a cycle of formative feedback
The Pass or Fail method is admittedly a fast and easy option to implement as a teacher, but surely the grading of internships necessitates a broader benchmark if the student’s work is to be properly valued? The learning curve during an internship touches both the practical and the personal, content is organic and ever-changing, timings are fluid and the demonstration of learning requires more than just a test. How to value a student who has truly exceeded? How to dissuade a student from doing the bare minimum just to scrape by?
Some of the suggestions put forward for the SoTL participants included:
- Following a template case study
- Formulating a grading rubric that includes clarity, validity, reliability and consistency
- Highlighting the best student work and putting it on show
- Grading to include variations, e.g. color schemes
- Offering regular feedback sessions rather than a final summative approach
Throwing in the famous Einstein quote “Knowledge is experience. Everything else is information”, Ruth effectively highlighted the fact that internship experience and its assessment is worthy of a rethink.
2. Demystifying critical reflection
Laura Zizka and Kader Hegedüs discombobulated a few brains with the question: What’s the difference between critical thinking and critical reflection. Indeed, a few beads of sweat broke out as most participants realized the uncomfortable truth: there is no real, definite answer. Participants tentatively agreed that reflection is the process that leads to the thinking … or thereabouts. Again, the magic of SoTL: Opening up and facing the enigmas hidden in the teaching process.
In a course like Academic Writing, teachers demand critical thinking from their students, but is the concept ever thoroughly explained and taught? What are the analytical tools required to elicit the critical process? Laura and Kader assisted the many aching heads with the following infrastructure: the best way to answer the question is to set a critical thinking task, (for example analyze a text, justify the sources and write a paper) and guide the students to use these cognitive skills:
- Clear understanding of the assignment’s purpose
- Accurate identification of the core issues
- Evaluation of significant points of view
- Gathering sufficient, relevant research
- Including information that opposes as well as supports
- Accurately identifying assumptions and inferences
- Assessing the most significant implications and consequences
Another exercise in teaching critical thinking is to steer students towards personal rather than external criteria, i.e. self- assessment rather than course assessment. In other words, when asked to analyze how the Academic Writing course has impacted their critical thinking, research and writing skills, students should be guided to reflecting upon themselves, their progress and their understanding. After all, where better to start the practice of evaluating information to reach a judgement than with oneself?
3. Co-constructive assessment
Francesco Screti and Andrew Keohane from Glion Institute of Higher Education described their alternative approach to grading Academic Writing tasks based on co-constructive methods. Simply put, using an online tool like Google Docs, students work on their assignment with continued help, feedback and assessment from teachers. This open and cooperative approach strengthens the learning outcomes and eliminates a lot of anxiety associated with the challenging task of critical writing. There is increased scaffolding offered from the offset where students feel supported by the regular personalized guidance. An essay can be built over a period of time, taking into account and modifying accordingly to the feedback offered. Google Docs stores the students’ work, becoming a reference point for progress and checking.
Admittedly, a few students may feel intimidated having their work stored online, open to teacher (‘Big Brother’) scrutiny. Some of the weaker students may succumb to laziness and lack of autonomy, safe in the knowledge that help is constantly on the way. Similarly, stronger students could feel under-challenged by this apparently ‘too involved’ approach.
This method has been in use for three semesters and has so far proven successful in improving the quality of the work and the students’ confidence in a task they normally find extremely daunting. While this approach has enhanced student performance in this particular subject area, it may not be totally suitable to all subjects.
4. Using testing more effectively
Sébastien Fernandez rightly mentioned that “We don’t learn Salsa from reading a book, but from practice.” So why not make information retention more playful, practical and dynamic in the classroom? If learning is going to be assessed based on memory recall, then strategies need to be taught - and they needn’t be painful. The SoTL participants were challenged to remember a list of 20 words guided by a method laid out in the Joshua Foer book ‘Moonwalking with Einstein’ that assists memory storage and retrieval. Thanks to the well-laid out strategy, the mission was successfully completed.
Sébastien underlined how teachers often underuse student testing effectively in class. It can be done without the pressure of grades or evaluation in a more dynamic, consistent and useful way. Methods for on-going learning testing could include:
- Using spontaneous recall in class
- Holding off taking notes
- Giving more informal quizzes
- Offering mini mock exams
- Giving more context to trigger memory
To conclude, it’s best to train students to use the information where possible, not just to listen and learn it.
SoTL key takeaways
The question of how to best adapt the student assessment of learning resulted in many descriptive and adaptive conclusions. It was generally agreed that pedagogical practices need to evolve into something fairer and more holistic, but that unfortunately in some cases, the functionality of certain ‘old fashioned’ methods was going to be difficult to totally eradicate.
- The Good: When student assessment can be flexible, adaptive. Assessment that makes positive use of technology and resources. Enhancing pass or fail methods to be more representative of student knowledge.
- The Bad: Tests based on memory recall. Student demotivation caused by a bad grade. The joy of learning VS the stress of exams. Grades not representative of knowledge.
- The Ugly: Lack of resources resulting in mechanical assessment methods. Easy to use testing methods that benefit the teacher, not the student. Testing based on pass or fail that offers no nuanced feedback.
Feedback from the participants:
“I am taking two main insights from the SoTL conference. The first relates to how the assessment of student learning can facilitate changes in the pedagogical practice and approach of an institution. A great deal of analytical work is required to assess student exam results, assessment methods and teaching approaches in light of the particular learning outcomes. The second relates to the complexity involved in assessing assess critical thinking in a way that benefits student development.” Dr Amrita Zahir - Head of Faculty Development, EHL.
“The discussions raised many fundamental points regarding the various delivery formats for a course. In particular, a questioning on the "playful" dimension to be included in a course and its impact on students’ learning. There’s still a lot to think about in terms of “gamification” and the student learning processes.” Dr Stefano Borzillo - Associate Dean Undergraduate program, EHL.
“To me, SoTL felt like what a true conference should be: it was more about sharing what we do not know, rather than what we think we know. This created an ideal environment to rethink our role as practitioners and to address questions we usually tend to avoid.” Mr Kader Hegedüs - Lecturer, EHL.
“I really enjoyed the very practice-oriented and thought-provoking format of the sessions. It’s with this philosophy in mind that I designed my presentation that was about the fascinating topic of the testing and its long-lasting effect on information retention. I wanted the audience to realize that we underuse testing students in our classes. It can be done without the pressure of grades for students and without the high workload of grading for teachers.” Dr Sébastien Fernandez - Associate Professor, EHL.
“The SoTL conference was an invaluable opportunity to present the preliminary findings of our ongoing research on co-constructed assessment and discuss them with colleagues who teach the same subject as well as other subjects. Sharing teaching practices, critically evaluating them, questioning ourselves, giving/receiving feedback, discussing with colleagues is crucial for teachers’ improvement, which in turn is a way to ensure our students the best learning experience.” Dr Francesco Screti - Professor of Academic Writing, Glion Institute of Higher Education.
“For me, SoTL represents an opportunity to share and gain insights into a range of teaching and learning practices. But, more importantly, the questions raised by other conference participants as they interact with my working practices offer useful and sometimes challenging perspectives which can really improve curriculum design.” Ms Ruth Puhr - Faculty Development Advisor, Les Roches.
Educators in higher education should definitely consider participating in or hosting a SoTL event at their institution if they want to further understand and improve teaching and learning practices. At EHL, we are already looking forward to the next SoTL conference.