Giving students an A+ …..

Fairfield Bridge, Hamilton

I recently attended the annual CITRENZ conference, held this year in Hamilton, New Zealand and hosted by Wintec, the Waikato Institute of Technology.  This is the primary local conference for those of us in the tertiary sector who are either teaching Information Technology or researching in IT education.  Although primarily an academic conference it also attracts a number of local IT industry people, particuarly those who have an interest in graduate recruitment.

Many of the academic papers relate to the teaching of IT and the education of work-ready IT graduates.  This year I was presenting a paper on innovative strategies that my colleagues and I had used to improve student engagement with a compulsory first year degree course.  This paper described how we had altered the delivery of the course sessions but more importantly how we had radically altered the assessment.  Inspired by the ideas of Benjamin Zander, we gave all our students an A+ in the first week of the course, subject to only two requirements.  The full paper is here and I would love to hear your comments about it – I may well provide a blog post giving more details too.

Benjamin Zander

For several years I have been interested not just in the innovative delivery of courses but also in the mechanisms we use to assess student learning.  It seems to me that despite what we might say, students realise that what we REALLY value is what we assess.  For example, no matter how much we may stress that we (and employers) value team work and collaboration, if our assessment requires individual assignments or exams in which sharing and ‘plagiarism’ is penalised students readily pick up the embedded message! What we were trying to do in the particular course under discussion was to remove unnecessary stress from a course that really wanted students to explore and enjoy the whole field of IT in their own ways, rather than being fed an arbitrary collection of ‘facts’ that they needed to memorise.

But the real driver behind this post is my disappointment in the lack of reaction from my peers at conference.  There were a (very) few who talked to me after my presentation and expressed a wish to follow our model but were sceptical that they would have institutional backing to do so but for the most part there was no reaction at all.  This surprised me.  I had expected negative reactions.  I would have liked the chance to argue that this was not a gimmick, nor a failed experiment; that it was a thought out response to a particular set of challenges and that it heralded a way of re-thinking our assessment values.  Of course, my presentation could well have been at fault, I perhaps focussed on the wrong things and didn’t make clear the deeper purpose behind what we were attempting to do.  Perhaps the presentation was lightweight and I shot myself in the foot.  The prezi of it is here if anyone wants to look for themselves.

Whatever the reason, I feel as if the need to reassess our assessment practices is still unrecognised and I will have to try harder to bring it to people’s attention.  Have you tried to change your assessment practices? I would be really interested in hearing from you as I am keen to understand both the obstacles and the drivers.



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