Assessing tutorial participation through reflective practice

Photo credit: unsplash, Nicole Honeywell, CC0

In this extra post, Dr Lawrence Dritsas, a Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the School of Social and Political Science, describes an innovative assessment based on students’ reflection on their tutorial preparation and engagement…

I lead the pre-Honours course, Science, Nature and Environment, which is a ‘sensitising’ course that explores the social aspects of scientific knowledge, and focuses on how we understand and act in the natural world. The course attracts a wide range of students from both CAHSS and CSE as an ‘outside option’ and is compulsory for students following the MA Sustainable Development.

The course has a standard delivery model: two lectures and one tutorial per week. Previously, 10 percent of the mark was based on a student’s ‘participation’ in tutorial. In recent years I grew dissatisfied with this, becoming aware that what ‘good’ participation looked like and how the assessment contributed to the learning outcomes of the course was unclear. This was concerning because oral communication skills are something I want to develop in students and this traditional assessment was not provoking the improvements I wanted to see. My involvement with SLICCs led me to the ‘Reflection Facilitators’ Toolkit’ for ideas.

The new assessment I introduced this year is a 500–1000 word ‘tutorial reflection’, worth 20 percent of the course mark. With the support and guidance of their tutors, students spent the final five minutes of every tutorial recording how they felt about the discussion, including their preparation. These notes served as the evidence for the written work, due in week 11, which asked the students for reflections on their preparation for and participation in tutorial discussions and activities. Similar to the SLICC assessment, students were introduced to the University’s graduate attributes, learning skills and mindsets to structure their reflection. Much to their surprise, students were also told that if their attendance in tutorial or their preparation was poor, an honest, well-evidenced reflection could result in a passing mark!

Students responded positively, diligently keeping their diaries. They were honest about their weekly preparation levels, difficulties with new concepts, fear of public speaking, and perceived personal strengths and weaknesses. Many described how writing the reflection affected them personally:

Writing (and rewriting) this report has taught me to try and understand myself as well as others.

Seeing as I was expected to reflect on my own participation, I was more inclined to prepare and contribute, as it made me more conscious of my actions.

Taking notes after each class has been really helpful in allowing me to see how I struggled in different situations and how to go about changing that.

Marking and moderating the reflection involved different skills for the course team than those used for an essay; the guidance provided in the Facilitators’ Toolkit helped calibrate our judgements. The most surprising outcomes were insights about the tutorial as a learning space. Our course team was very experienced but none of us had expected to learn so much about facilitating small-group discussions. After reading the reflections, one tutor said:

This was pretty humbling and eye-opening for me. I learned quite a lot about how I can address my own practice – some students were more confused than I thought they were and some just need a little more support, e.g., coaxing and more frequent mixing up of sub-groups.

We realised that this assessment provides better information than we had ever gotten from end-of-course or mid-course feedback processes. Who knew that the way to get great feedback from students is to assess it?

Introducing reflective practices to first-year students improves their self-awareness of learning skills, study habits and problem areas. Embedding reflection into tutorial assessment rewards students for improvement regardless of their starting point – ideal for first-years. In the process, both staff and students will learn something about themselves and students will be better prepared for future participation in small-group discussions.

Special thanks must go to the tutors on this course for their enthusiastic and expert facilitation and marking: Dr Joan Haig, Sergio Orozco-Echeverri and Sophie Stone.

Lawrence Dritsas

Dr Lawrence Dritsas is a Senior Lecturer in Science and Technology Studies at the School of Social and Political Science, where he is also Director of the Undergraduate School. He researches histories of scientific knowledge in relation to colonial empires; the history of scientific expeditions (particularly in Africa) and the history of museum collections.

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