Chairing a successful conference on learning and teaching in my first six months at the University, while I’m still becoming familiar with custom and practice here, was never going to be easy. Particularly not in the throes of institutional transformation and a shifting position in the league tables. One thing that I was clear about as I took up the role of Chair, however, was that the conference needed to speak directly to the interests of those actively engaged in teaching and learning. From responses I’ve received directly, and through the early comments on our feedback form, we’ve done quite well in this respect, and I would like to attribute this relative success to the design of the event itself.
Starting the day in College groups, working on topics that are particularly relevant for their College, set the scene for a larger forum to explore the exhibition of teaching, which also displayed work by students. There was no keynote speaker, there were no papers on pedagogic research, no parallel strands. What we did have were some honest appraisals of current practice, accounts from colleagues and students on what is working for them, and most of all, plenty of time to talk, share ideas and possibly shift some practices.
Assessment and feedback were central topics for two of the Colleges in the morning, and rightly so. This is such a key theme for us as an institution, we need to keep it uppermost in our minds. I spent the morning with an engaged group of colleagues from one College, looking at how we might improve the efficiency of our feedback processes. The Student Union Charter on Feedback is a concise document, setting out both the expectations that students can have of receiving feedback, but equally importantly what their responsibilities are in relation to feedback. Colleagues are urged to make their fellow colleagues and their students aware of it at the start of the year. The table-based activities explored current practices, and considered in detail how the resource we spend on feedback might be better placed at the formative stages while students are able to benefit from it for their assignments, and how this might be achieved if the balance of investment is considered at programme level. Methods such as group feedback were discussed, and incidentally this was the theme of the lunchtime poster that won the award for having most impact on colleagues’ practice. Well done to Robin Green, from the Department of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour, for sharing your methods with others so effectively in this way.
Still on the topic of assessment, we moved into the Exam Debate. The notion of holding a debate about ‘exams’ was a response to the strategic directive to reduce their use overall. This is a subject of much discussion in Departments, and the debating teams raised many, relevant perspectives and was an entertaining way to present the issues. The Brexit debate echoed throughout and morphed seamlessly into Remain vs Br-exam, which on balance carried the motion to change how we do exams. Whilst accepting that some exams are well designed, can test for some things in useful ways, there was also due concern for their fairness, relevance for learning or employability, and out-dated methods (writing by hand for 3 hours, for instance). In preparing for the debate, the teams discovered a paucity of research on the efficacy of written examinations as an assessment method. The task for us now is to make sure that we capture this investment of intellectual capital on the topic, investigate the facts further, and come up with something akin to a position paper to assist colleagues in making appropriate changes to the use and function of exams in their contexts. If you are interested in participating in this work, do get in touch.
It was a team effort, no doubt, that brought the day together so well, with much deliberation and contestation about what we might Discover in teaching practices at Leicester, and it is up to all of us to continue to work with others to pursue the inquiries this conference has started.