Reflections on…. the SEDA Spring Conference 2016

SEDA Spring Learning and Assessment Conference 12-13 May 2016 The Carlton Hotel, Edinburgh – Innovations in Assessment and Feedback Practice

Tansy at Seda spring 2016
Tansy Jessop pausing before hitting the nail on the head about assessment practice

This was an exciting and vibrant conference – like many attendees this was my first SEDA conference and it had the highest proportions of new-to-SEDA folk – and it had proved very popular, selling out before the end of the early bird discount finished. So there was definitely a vibe of change rather than complacency, and openness and willingness to share – factors welcomed by speakers all the way through the conference.

The conference kicked off with a presentation from the University of Edinburgh’s own Ian Pirie. This was a scene-setting discursive presentation that ranged across topics relating to assessment as diverse as employability, standards, and student engagement.

My interests lie in digital approaches and curriculum development, so there was plenty for me to engage with. For example, Edinburgh Napier’s presentation on the Digital Dissertation highlighted the importance of the alignment between subject and assessment – this new dissertation form is the capstone project on their MA in Blended and Online Learning. However there is no assessment ‘type’ – the form the assessment takes is negotiated in the same way that the subject matter is. Amy Barlow and Tansy Jessop discussed the various ways that the University of Winchester had used students writing blogs as part of formative assessment, and discussed some of the positives (it helped student learning) and negatives (did it take place at the right time in the course?).

Reflecting on assessment was also encouraged in Laura Ritchie’s session which involved groups sitting down together to re-enact the thought processes students would go through when starting to write an essay. The most striking memory of this session was when one participant tweeted “we are writing an essay” and immediately received a reply from an essay writing company of “can we help?” A moment no one there will forget.

Deena Ingham’s presentation on students setting summative assessment sparked a lot of debate – how can this work in practice, and at what point in the student journey? And revealed the multitude of ways that students are involved to varying degrees in defining their own assessment experiences. Margaret Price’s keynote gave a down to earth discussion about feedback and the challenges we face in dealing with it, and this was echoed in many papers – for example Linda Robson talked about analyzing feedback comments at the Open University, and there was a presentation on a big project being run across several Irish universities to encourage technology-enhanced feedback.

Tansy Jessop’s final keynote was a striking finish to the conference – the overview of the success of TESTA and its impact drew together many of the themes of the conference around student experience of assessment and feedback, course level approaches, and the balance between innovation and clear goals and standards.

One of the key messages I took away was around this tension between assessment innovation and student understanding of standards. There are varying amounts of pressure from pedagogy, widening participation, digital literacy, etc etc to diversify assessment types. On the other hand there is the negative effect of this on student understanding of how their effort aligns with achievement, what they are supposed to do for particular assessments, or how their work could be improved. Obviously, increasing student involvement in setting and/or working goals and standards is seen as the key way of ameliorating this, but the curriculum package of less assessment points, more opportunities for students to work alongside staff on these issues, and the development of staff and student skills needed to make the most of these new learning opportunities seems a long way off.  Perhaps the first step is to deal with what Tansy Jessop described as the “trivial platters of assessment” which dominate student learning and staff time, to free up some space in the curriculum to allow these bigger changes to take place.

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