Why is this important?
Our thinking is influenced by Dr Yong Zhao. He suggests education, rather than trying to fix perceived ‘deficits’, by measuring against prescribed standards, should be cultivating individual strengths1.
Employability, viewed from this perspective, can be seen as the ability to translate your uniqueness into value for others.
If higher education is to remain relevant in a changing world, it needs to demonstrate that our learning and assessment practices prepare people for the world of work and participation in democratic society.
There are frequent calls for assessment to become more ‘authentic’. By this we mean that the tasks which are assessed should reflect things the learner may have to do in real life.
Traditional assessment formats, such as essays or exams, don’t really mirror any other real-world situations.
Authentic assessment doesn’t only apply in subjects we traditionally think of as ‘vocational’. The skills we can test using formats such as closed book exams, which rely heavily on recall, are an equally poor fit with the working practices of academics or researchers of the future.
Authentic tasks are more likely to focus on deeper learning and the learner’s ability to apply their knowledge and skills. Give the learner some agency in deciding the topic and medium to be assessed, and you are moving towards the ideal of creating value from individual uniqueness.
Promoting ethical conduct
Academic misconduct features high amongst institutional concerns about assessment practice.
There is a perception that cheating and collusion are easier in the digital environment. However, such practices are generally only possible where the assessed task lends itself to finding an answer ready prepared. This is especially true now that the practice of purchasing an assignment written to order by an ‘essay mill’ has been outlawed.
Not only is it harder to cheat at authentic tasks, they provide a sound foundation for a discussion of ethical practice. Academic writing and referencing can appear arcane whereas giving credit to the work of others in the world of business is a more familiar concept to introduce an understanding of ethics.
The University of Exeter has created guidance on designing work integrated assessment.
This is a topic that cuts across a number of our principles:
- Principle number one, help learners understand what good looks like is relevant. Student engagement with the performance criteria can help develop an understanding of the importance of acknowledging source material and intellectual property rights.
- Principle number five, manage staff and learner workload effectively is important as pressure of over assessment can be a reason why students cheat2.
Some of the ways technology can help
Student employability is enhanced by familiarity with the kind of digital tools in day-to-day use in the business environment.
Use of digital tools allows learners to access and incorporate material from a wide range of sources and to present their outputs using a range of formats and media.
Digital tools can make it easier to simulate real-world scenarios to which students can respond. This can range from video examples to much more elaborate simulation tools.
Digital records of learning outcomes can produce richer evidence of student achievement. Open badges and micro-credentials can sit alongside more traditional formal qualifications.
Learners may build up a digital portfolio during the course of their studies that can be used as evidence for assessment or in applying for jobs as well as supporting continuous professional development throughout their working lives.
Text matching tools that generate an originality report for each assignment can be used to support the development of writing skills such as appropriate referencing and citation. Using the tools in a formative way with students can be more productive than simply using them to assist with the detection of plagiarism.
Putting the principle into practice
Our employability toolkit is a good starting point to find guidance and examples.
Policing a virtual shopping centre
The University of Northampton is using online scenarios to replace in-person training exercises for apprentice police officers. Videos of alleged robbery, shoplifting and suspicious activity in a shopping centre are accessed via the virtual learning environment (VLE).
Student responses to the scenarios are discussed in group webinar sessions which means that, for the first time, the whole class can learn from the experience.
The University has also created a mock courtroom scenario. Police apprentices present statements and are cross examined by two criminal barristers representing the defence and the prosecution3.
Group member evaluation
In the world of work, overall team performance is as much a part of recognition and reward strategy as individual performance. Assessing a learner’s contribution to group work is thus a very authentic scenario but fraught with difficulty.
At Maastricht University in the Netherlands, students in the department of data science and knowledge engineering experience authentic learning and assessment from the start of their course. The department has a philosophy of problem-based and project centred learning. Students work in groups of six to seven to solve real-world problems.
The issues that arise will be familiar to anyone who has tried group learning. Students complain that some of them work harder than others with some students failing to complete tasks or handing work in late.
It can be hard for tutors to get to the bottom of the issues as some of the complaints are contradictory. Often, they don’t hear about the issues until a deadline is approaching by which point it is too late to intervene and improve the group dynamic.
The solution to the problem was to implement group member peer evaluation at a point when the group has had time to settle down but there is still time for the initiative to result in improvement.
Group member evaluation is done anonymously using a tool designed by FeedbackFruits4 in collaboration with a group of universities. The tool is integrated into the learning management system via LTI.
Learners have to evaluate themselves before they assess other group members. They then look at how their self-evaluation matches that of their peers and have the opportunity to discuss this with their tutor.
A rubric was developed to assist the evaluative process. The rubric has six categories: attending internal team meetings; responsibility; communication; interaction and collaboration; initiative and timely submission of assigned work. There is a descriptor equating to: acceptable; satisfactory or exemplary for each category.
Students were at first encouraged, but not obliged, to provide additional feedback in the form of a comment. It is now felt to be good practice to require further comment on a low score. The reason behind a low score on attendance may be self-evident but a poor score for ‘initiative’ can be less so.
Most students value the initiative and take it seriously although some take longer to build up trust in the practice. Some timid learners have had their confidence boosted to find that peers appreciate their ideas and think they should speak up more.
View a presentation and watch the session recording about this case study.
The economics of panic buying
At Stirling University an economics exam involving ‘doing the calculations by hand, from memory, in a cold sterile environment’ has been replaced by real-world problems requiring flexibility and creativity to address the issues.
First year students in 2020 were required to design strategic interactions to address the pandemic. Topics ranged from panic buying, hoarding and price gouging to vaccine uptake and sharing. Students were free to use their own choice of medium including blog posts, digital posters and videos5.
The boss wants an answer by the end of the day
The environmental science department at Brunel University London replaced a three-hour exam with a more authentic task. Students were confronted with what it feels like to turn up for work one morning and find your boss needs a report on a complex matter by the end of the day.
The assessed task was a complex question drawing on a wide range of information encountered during the course. The students had to demonstrate their working and provide references with highlighted annotations. They had seven hours to tackle the problem.
- 1 Yong Zhao: From Deficiency to Strength: Shifting the Mindset about Education Inequality | National Education Policy Center - https://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/from-deficiency
- 2 SU Officers are waging war against essay mills | Wonkhe - https://wonkhe.com/blogs-sus/su-officers-are-waging-war-against-essay-mi...
- 3 Learning and teaching reimagined Jisc report p.16 - https://repository.jisc.ac.uk/8150/1/learning-and-teaching-reimagined-a-...
- 4 This is one of a number of tools developed through an initiative known as the ‘Edtech DoTank’: a collaboration between SURF (Jisc’s equivalent in the Netherlands), universities and a supplier. The outputs are made available to other universities.
- 5 Learning and teaching reimagined Jisc report p12 - https://repository.jisc.ac.uk/8150/1/learning-and-teaching-reimagined-a-...