In this post, my colleague Dr Jade Shepherd, Senior Lecturer in Modern History (1800-present) at the University of Lincoln, shares some of the brilliant work that she’s been doing with her students for the past few years on her final-year module. There are some great ideas in here that could easily be adapted in a variety of different contexts to provide students with personalised support within a collaborative learning environment.
Mad or Bad? Criminal Lunacy in Britain 1800-1900 is a Level 3 History module in the School of Humanities and Heritage at the University of Lincoln. The module is designed to encourage students to personalize their learning, from seminar research and discussion to assessment. They also reflect on their learning, skills and progress over the course of the module, and collaborate in the assessment feedback process.
Students are encouraged to think of themselves as being part of a research community. I set the theme/topic for our weekly seminars, but seminar discussion is built around students’ individual research findings and questions. Before and during seminars students share sources and ideas based on their reading and research and we discuss key questions in the histories of crime and insanity. Research is shared using Blackboard’s blog tool, and to encourage engagement – and to speak to different interests and skill sets – students are set a different sharing task each week, for example:
- to locate and upload two trial transcripts along with four keywords and a three-sentence summary explaining why historians will find them useful;
- to put together an elevator pitch explaining a particular issue or event to a non-specialist).
Students also raise questions and/or continue seminar discussions on the module discussion board. Many students use the discussion board to raise and discuss (with each other and me) issues and questions they are interested in, and to gain additional feedback on their ideas and understanding. If they choose, students can share their work on a module blog (students have previously shared versions of their assessments, pieces they’ve produced for seminars, and some have written pieces inspired by seminar discussion and their general interests). This encourages them to feel part of a larger community of researchers; it enables assessments to have an afterlife (and therefore helps students to think of them as more than simply a means to an end); and it provides a platform for students to showcase their transferable skills to a wider audience, including prospective employers when applying for jobs (something past students have reported has been very effective).
To further encourage engagement across the module, students also keep a weekly diary using Blackboard’s journal tool, which I briefly respond to. Each week they note what’s surprised them, what they’ve found challenging, and how their reading and seminar discussions have built on what they have previously learnt on the module. They also note any ideas for their essay (they design their own question) based on the week’s preparation and discussions (giving them something to go back to later). The diaries help students to make links between weeks/topics and encourage continuous reflection, and students have commented positively on them:
‘I found the online weekly diaries really helpful. One, it helped me reflect on the weeks learning and solidify my knowledge into key points. Two, it was really helpful to reflect on when choosing a question for the final essay’; ‘the diaries each week were so useful…they made me feel like I had a better connection between you and the module content as well as making me feel more engaged in the module’
Assessment and Feedback
In addition to weekly collaboration and reflection, feedback is also a key component of the module. Students not only receive weekly feedback on their seminar work/tasks and diaries, but they’re also encouraged to play an active role in the assessment-feedback process. To encourage students to reflect on their research and writing process, recognise what they want help with, and to read and engage with their feedback, they submit a reflection with their assessments. They explain what they’ve enjoyed about the assessment and what they’ve found difficult, and list two to three points they’d like feedback on. With Assessment Two they also explain how they used their feedback from the previous assessment to help them to improve for the second. If they reflect (which most do) students are awarded 2 additional marks. My feedback is framed around students’ reflections, making the feedback dialogic. I’ve sought student feedback on this, and the results are briefly discussed below.
Some students admitted that they were initially motivated to reflect in order to gain the extra marks, but they soon discovered its benefits. One student said that ‘While the extra points were certainly the initial draw, the document allowed me to think about what I have studied in the module and I think it helped me remember the content more clearly’, and another appreciated the extra points but also remarked ‘it’s good to…be forced to think about what I found personally weakest in my work’. One commented that while they’d completed the document for the marks, they ‘would have completed it regardless’ because they wanted ‘helpful feedback’. When asked what benefits they experienced from reflecting, students highlighted several things, including reassurance, and ‘more personalised’ feedback that they were ‘more likely to consider/remember’.
It’s interesting that students felt the feedback was more helpful and personalised. I didn’t find myself writing anything I wouldn’t have written without the reflection (the strengths and weaknesses highlighted were no different), but the way the feedback was framed was different: it was part of a conversation; it explicitly included students and responded to their concerns and questions. Inviting students to be active participants in the assessment process flattens out the hierarchies that are usually implicit in the assessment process. In addition, while there are ample opportunities for students to receive individual feedback before and after they submit assessments (e.g. in office hours), the reflection provides a low-pressure option for students to articulate their struggles and thoughts in a fashion that’s timely and asynchronous; they reflect during the writing process (or immediately afterwards) while they’re still thinking about the assessment. While most reflected because they thought it would improve the quality of their feedback, some also found that being given the opportunity to reflect was beneficial: ‘it was good to reflect on what was enjoyable in the process, especially since after writing the whole experience can sometimes seem tedious.’ Not only were students encouraged to recall the positive elements of writing their assessments, but the second reflection encouraged them to recognise the progress they had made and their role in that progress: ‘it is a useful document that helps bring together thoughts on how to improve and how work has been improved upon feedback’.
One reason I wanted students to be active participants in the feedback process is because over the years the number of students who don’t appear to read or engage with feedback has concerned me. Structuring reflection into the assessment appears to have helped immensely. When asked if they were more likely to engage with their feedback because they had reflected all students said yes:
- ‘it was nice to be able to see my main difficulties addressed’;
- ‘It definitely made it seem more personal and it also gave me an opportunity to really think about what I’d struggled with, knowing that the feedback would really help’.
Others appreciated the dialogue that this process encouraged and the opportunity to express themselves and be heard in a process that often appears as unidirectional (i.e. from teacher to student): ‘I think it makes it more of a discussion between the lecturer, the work and myself rather than just reading through feedback absentmindedly’. Reflecting requires students to think about and note their skills and struggles, making clear to them from the outset that the feedback they subsequently receive will not only help them on the module but will “feed forward”, and this appears to have made them more likely to engage with it and recognise its use:
- ‘I think the process of self reflection at the end of the writing process, then having your comments on the piece of work and reflection document, clarified my weak areas to me and made it easier to apply the changes in all future essays’;
- ‘All of it was helpful and not just to the module but to my academic writing in general.’;
- ‘this helped me with all of my assessments going forward, and the feedback from the reflection…was a massive help for my dissertation.’
All students who provided feedback found that spending 10 minutes (the average time it took to complete the reflection) a valuable exercise:
- ‘I think that it allows you to consider the assessment in more depth and the process of writing/researching (rather than just submitting the piece)’;
- ‘I thought it was a helpful exercise. I think I have learnt that…reflection and feedback play a vital role in great pieces of work.’
All students reported that they’d like to see such reflections rolled out more widely across the curriculum.
Providing assessment feedback that responds to students’ reflections does not typically take any longer than ‘normal’ feedback and is positive for both students and for me. Continuous reflection, collaborative exercises, and personalisation are all beneficial to student engagement, attainment, and experience. They also enable me to provide a stronger learning environment, enhanced feedback, and student support.