Collaborative writing, feedforward and connoisseurship:  the Assessment, Learning and Digital Education group assignment

Flickr CC BY [brillianthues]
Flickr CC BY [brillianthues]
Following on from the March issue on Feedback and Assessment, Clara O’Shea discusses  an innovative group assignment in the Assessment, Learning and Digital Education (ALDE) course . ALDE is taught by Clara, Tim Fawns and Dai Hounsell, and the course’s feedback practices are regularly cited as reasons for various Teaching Award nominations by students.

As part of the MSc in Digital Education, the ALDE course is a fully online course that makes use of Moodle, Skype, Twitter, wikis, Google docs and whatever other technologies and material practices students wish to bring to their learning experience.  It explores the relationship between assessment, pedagogy and technology through a lens that combines theory, research and experiential learning.  The students tend to be busy professionals in the education sphere, undertaking part-time study for career development.

Our main assessment activity is “The Big Questions on Emerging Themes”, a group work assignment that combines collaborative writing, critical friendship and tutor feedforward to develop students’ individual and shared understanding of quality – their ‘connoisseurship’, or evaluative judgement.

Students work in groups of 3-4 to respond to topical issues in the assessment field (e.g. “Should failure be encouraged rather than penalised?” and “In the age of online assessment, plagiarism is an out-dated concept.”).  They self-select into groups around their preferred topic and work during weeks 9-12 of the course to create a co-authored, critical and synthesised response to the topic statement.  To acknowledge and underpin the collaborative nature of this work, the group share a grade for the assignment. This is worth 50% of their overall individual mark for the course.

Group assignments are scary and stressful, requiring skills that are often implicit or unpractised in formal educations settings, and can be particularly demanding on time and energy when undertaken asynchronously amongst a globally distributed cohort.  As one student explained:

[It’s] a difficult group of skills to acquire; it involves leaving behind our personal intentions, prioritizing group interaction, seeing the assignment evolve to something perhaps far from what we personally had in mind to do, a general challenge on many levels.

For this reason, the course takes a cumulative, scaffolded approach to prepare students for the group experience, both in the development of skills and shared ideas of what constitutes ‘good’ work.   This is done through a non-assessed group writing task early in the course, discussions on peer review, feedback and collaborative practices, and two feedforward opportunities from both peers and tutors.

The feedforward is particularly noteworthy and comes in two stages.

  • Early in week 9, each group produce their agreed alliance and a brief outline of how they intended to tackle the Big Question (which terms they would define, what stance they were likely to take, key resource the might use.) Tutors and ‘critical friends’ (students from other groups interested in the topic), then leave text comments on each plan offering suggestions, resources, asking clarifying questions and the like.
  • At the end of week 10, each group produces a draft response and nominate things they would like feedforward to focus on. Tutors read the drafts individually and then meet on Skype to discuss them, recording their discussion and sharing the audio with each group.

The feedforward experience has been extremely constructive to my learning process.  I guess it was the first time that the feed(back) I received, came before actually handing in the final piece. As I said, all very formative!

Each group has their own forum and wiki space and are encouraged to explore whatever technologies and practices they think will work for them (e.g Google docs, Realtimeboard, OneNote Notebook, etc).  The different technologies used often surface interesting issues around how different digital environments can lead to different social practices.

I was amazed at how much we had done early on in the first week and how much my team’s insights are helping me think differently about certain points.

All work – from initial planning to drafts and feedforward is done as much as possible in open, accessible ways so that the entire course has access and can offer support to each group’s work.  Ideas around feedback (self, peer, informal and feedforward) and creating and situating shared concepts of ‘good work’ and ‘good working practices’ are part of a meta-commentary between tutors and students as the course progressed.

At first I thought that a group assessment would be a little daunting as the experience in the activity group work was not collaborative or cooperative, however the Group Assessment went very well especially after we all met using VOIP (Skype), this helped to break the ice somewhat and is vital for good group gelling. We all had a turn as group leader for a week and felt that we could talk to each other regarding anything. [Virtual] Group hugs were also a good part of this and boosting each other when things got on top of us.

Overall, students have found the collaborative writing assignment challenging and thought provoking.  Scaffolding built into the course design and tutor feedforward are essential in turning a difficult activity into a productive and useful one.  Making understandings of quality, group practices and feedforward an explicit part of the assessment design can develop a more supportive and effective collaborative experience.

Clara O’Shea
Clara O’Shea (@claraoshea) teaches various courses on the MSc in Digital Education including: Assessment, Learning and Digital Education; An Introduction to Digital Games-Based Learning and Understanding Learning in Online Environments.  She is also an ESRC-funded Doctoral Student within the Centre for Research in Digital Education, exploring identity development in formal and informal digital environments.

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