on assessment and feedback: some notes on student-as-producer

Last academic session I led a module on assessment and feedback on our Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education. I wrote about the boundaries of this experience here, where I developed a connection between the validated/non-validated curriculum and the idea of student-as-producer. The pivot for this connection was an idea of co-operative pedagogy and co-operative pedagogic spaces. I wrote:

The at times painful, co-operative negotiation of the curriculum, its content, its (non-)assessment, and its organisation and forms, can be intensely uncomfortable, but it is also a process of legitimising our own claims to what we want to learn and who we want to be. It is a process of reclaiming our labour: for the social uses it has; for the mutuality of its products; for its reconnection of our soul to that of our fellows; and for its recognition and re-making of our alienated selves.

Elsewhere I argue that this amplifies the radical, critical, pedagogical work of bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress, that

to educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin (p. 13).

I re-visited these statements in light of a session I led last Wednesday for this year’s cohort of PGCHE participants. I am not leading the module this session, but I did offer a session on assessment and feedback in light of student-as-producer, and the potential for creating degrees of autonomy inside the classroom.

This idea of autonomy, the student voice and of students as partners is not new. It underpins the HEA’s students-as-partners thematic work, and the Jisc’s summer of student innovation. However, my starting point was not fixed on an idea of autonomy as a particular commodity that emerged as a complete thing or instead was nothing at all (i.e. that you have complete autonomy or no autonomy but nothing in between). My starting point was on the ways in which autonomy and agency might be encouraged through the curriculum, and was rooted in the rich set of documents on the idea of student-as-producer at the University of Lincoln. In particular the working definition and themes underpinning research-engaged teaching and learning enables a focus on developing staff/student engagement in:

  • The organising principles for the [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment];
  • The form of [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment]and the roles/responsibilities of those involved in it;
  • The content of [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment].

The focus here is three-fold. First, it enables a richer understanding of what it means to be engaged in [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment] that starts with the student. Second, it engages in a conversation around [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment] reliability, validity and bias. Third, it is a catalyst for developing new knowledge, in the sense that it is new to the student, or to the institution, or to the subject. Thus, the working definition states that research-engaged teaching and learning is:

A fundamental principle of curriculum design, where students learn primarily by engagement in real research projects, or projects which replicate the process of research in their discipline. Engagement is created through active collaboration amongst and between students and academics.

This vision for research-engaged teaching and learning has eight characteristics

  • Discovery: Student as Producer
  • Technology: Digital Scholarship
  • Space and Spatiality: Learning Landscapes in Higher Education
  • Assessment: Active Learners in Communities of Practice
  • Research and Evaluation: Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
  • Student Voice: Diversity, Difference and Dissensus
  • Support for research based learning through expert engagement with information resources
  • Creating the Future: Employability, Enterprise, Beyond Employability, Postgraduate

In particular, I am interested in how the discovery characteristics map across to those of assessment. In Mike Neary and Andy Hagyard’s analysis of departmental self-assessments on their engagement with the principles of student-as-producer, discovery incorporates the following facets:

  • Students are familiar with the research work of the department;
  • Students have the opportunity to contribute to the department’s research work;
  • Students at all levels work on collaborative projects where learning is driven by inquiry;
  • All students complete a substantial piece of independent research;
  • Students are introduced to a range of appropriate research methods and skills, including ethics;
  • The development of research skills is explicit in programme learning outcomes;
  • Students are encouraged to make explicit how the research skills developed contribute to their personal development and employability; and
  • Students have the opportunity to present and/or publish their own research work in a public forum.

There is a rich history of inquiry-based learning (including its problematic nature) and problem-based learning, and the idea of the teaching-research nexus, to which this work can connect, and against which discovery can be developed. This can also frame the focus on staff-student co-operation in the negotiation of:

  • The organising principles for the [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment];
  • The form of [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment] and the roles/responsibilities of those involved in it;
  • The content of [pedagogy/curriculum design/assessment].

Whilst student-as-producer has its own rich grounding in critical social theory, the richness of this history of pedagogic co-operation can be situated against the HEA framework for students-as-partners, in particular in its focus on the following questions.

What is the rationale for partnership and do all potential partners share this rationale?

Do all students and staff share the same assumptions and values about partnership in learning and teaching?

How is power distributed and to what extent do existing structures and processes enable distributed power or, conversely, reinforce existing inequalities?

In this way it resonates with the QAA Quality code, Chapter B6 on the Assessment of Students, and especially indicators 5 and 6.

Assessment and feedback practices are informed by reflection, consideration of professional practice, and subject-specific and educational scholarship.

Staff and students engage in dialogue to promote a shared understanding of the basis on which academic judgements are made.

Here there are clear links to the discovery features of student-as-producer, as well as the prompts given by Neary and Hagyard in their departmental self-assessment that relate to Assessment and Feedback: Active Learning in Communities of Practice:

  • Assessments reflect the discovery mode of teaching and learning
  • Students are involved in the process of designing assessments and marking criteria
  • Students are involved in marking and feedback through peer, group and self-assessment

What this means for staff is the struggle against the power or capital that they have in the classroom, and the willingness to confront that power, in order that the classroom becomes more engaged around the scholarship or research process rather than her/his status. As Neary notes in the user guide for student-as-producer:

The research engaged teaching and learning initiative is an attempt to restate the purpose of higher education by seeking to reconnect the core activities of universities, research and teaching, in a way that consolidates and substantiates the values of academic life… Student as Producer refers to the objects and resources and processes that students create and invent, but it also refers to the ways in which students are the creators of their own social world, as subjects rather than objects of history (Benjamin 1934). This capacity for student subjectivity is found in the human attributes of creativity and desire (Lefebvre 1991), so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design (Debord 1970).

My question is why wouldn’t we want to work in this way? In particular, why wouldn’t we wish to work co-operatively given the research that frames the idea that Neary cites in the user guide? How can we acknowledge the institutional, cultural and personal barriers that exist, in order to revisit what can be done in our own, concrete teaching and learning contexts? This connects to:

  • the values that we describe collectively in the curriculum;
  • the responsibility that we take for encouraging peer review as an academic practice, including in formative/summative assessment and feedback;
  • the shared production of curriculum content;
  • the alignment of the curriculum over the length of a programme-of-study, so that the project and dissertations required at level six or seven are framed though research-engaged study in levels four and five;
  • the use of portfolios and learning logs to scope, describe and analyse learning, in ways that underpin personal tutoring, peer mentoring and so on; and
  • student decision-making, problem-solving, innovation, employability skills.

In the session I spoke about degrees of autonomy that might exist in different contexts. I spoke about the pedagogic decisions that would have to be made in vocational spaces with strong thresholds/requirements, or in contexts with large numbers of students, or in studio-based spaces, or that would differ across levels of study given the student/staff starting positions and confidence. I also spoke about the need to work on trust. Here it is not enough to say that students aren’t equipped to discuss the organisation, form and content of the curriculum.

Anyway, I was asked for examples, and those appended below interest me in their focus on the organising principles, forms or content of the curriculum.


The DMU Academic Commons: http://our.dmu.ac.uk/ [co-operative in organisation, form and content]

Media, Design and Production on the DMU Commons: https://wiki.our.dmu.ac.uk/w/index.php/Main_Page [open, co-created curriculum]

Media, Design and Production student profiles on the DMU Commons, with links to student-negotiated and generated portfolios, websites, coursework: https://wiki.our.dmu.ac.uk/w/index.php/Main_Page#Students

DMU Square Mile [students as researchers/volunteers]: http://dmusquaremile.our.dmu.ac.uk/

DMU Global [students negotiating around placements]: http://dmuglobal.our.dmu.ac.uk/

There are effective practice cases studies that are rooted in student-led, social pedagogies, which enable students some degree of autonomy over study or assessment or discovery at: http://celt.our.dmu.ac.uk/effective-practice/

PGCHE Assessment and Feedback, 2013/14 [co-operative in organisation, form and content, of the curriculum and the assessment]: http://www.richard-hall.org/2014/01/26/on-alienation-and-the-curriculum/

At Lincoln

Tourism: http://researchengaged.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/social-and-political-perspectives-on-tourism/ and http://www.travel-conference.co.uk/

Criminology [+ employability] http://researchengaged.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/criminology-in-the-professions/

Social Work: http://researchengaged.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/communicating-and-engaging-with-others-2/

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