Thursday, 9 October 2014

Flexible study

On the BA LTR course we don’t set dates for formative assessment as the students are doing work based learning and have to fit work and study into a busy schedule. We do not even have synchronous timetabled learning schedules, interaction between students and with tutors is largely asynchronous. It is not unusual for discussions to be spread over several days or even weeks as relevant thoughts are added at times to suit individuals. Telephone or VOIP tutorials are available on a group or individual basis by negotiation with tutors. These may be in Google Hangouts, VLE discussions, G+ forums, Skype, Facetime or telephone.

In week 1 of a module students each develop an ILP to plan their study by adapting the suggested study schedules to align with their predicted workplace activities in a way that best suits them. That is an approach we have used since 2003, feedback from many students over the 11 years since we started indicates that this flexibility is very much appreciated by students and their employers. 

Anglia Ruskin University allow students up to a maximum of 20% formative feedback from tutors on their draft work for each module assignment. In our model, in order to maximise the value of formative assessment, each student decides which elements of their work they want tutors to provide the 20% feedback on and then requests that feedback as and when it is convenient for them. 

Assessment is by patchwork text and media so the modules are chunked down generally into 3 or 4 patches and a stitching section. A student with an outstanding approach to literature review (usually patch 1) shown in their semester 1 sumative feedback would not be likely to feel that they would benefit from further formative assessment of that skill in semester 2 so might focus formative requests on their experiential patches, or on the stitching which is a review of meta-learning. A student with weaknesses in all elements may well ask for a proportion of each patch to be reviewed by a tutor so they can improve across the board. Tutors may well make suggestions to individual students as to what might be a good approach for them but the choice lies with the student. This approach enables students to tailor their formative assessment to suite their own needs and also allows them to demonstrate good practice in independently managing their learning when they provide the retrospective self assessment of meta-learning in their final activity for each module. 

The form in which feedback is provided varies depending on which kind of media a student has used. On Word or PDF files adding digital annotation is straightforward using comments tools that put the comment in an extended margin with a line connecting to the element that is being commented on. The advantage of this is that a tutor comment is then directed at exactly which word, phrase or paragraph it is referring to. With some forms of media, such as video, animation or audio, direct annotation is not possible so a feedback sheet, or more usually an email message is used. Context cues are then included such as; On slide 3...  or: at point 2mins 30secs into the video....  The language of assessment criteria, learning outcomes, module suggested tasks or other scholarly practice standards/expectations is often used to show students what the expectations are. Where relevant, links to web sources such as the Anglia Harvard style templates, online study skills files, blog posts etc. are included to extend the guidance.

Why are we so flexible?
The ILP is a flexible planning document that is revised as semester progresses to show what has been achieved and what needs to be rescheduled.

During semester a teaching assistant may well have to go on a 5 day outdoor activities residential course with their class as part of their expected work duties. They are often unable to study during such a period due to long working days and/or poor internet/lack of IT equipment so need to adapt their study schedule to have a higher load on other weeks. Unexpected events such as Ofsted visits or personal/family illness can also interrupt plans. 

A student working in the DfE had occasional weeks where he was unable to study due to involvement in important government business. Our flexible approach meant he could negotiate his study around this and he was able to achieve some outstanding results, usually in the 80s, and graduated with a very good 1st class degree. He felt the degree was perhaps the only one in the country he could have done while maintaining his employment. 

I could provide many other examples of how the approach has benefited students in other work contexts going back to 2001 when working on a British Thoracic Society project where a specialist registrar commented that this approach was exactly what he needed, the time he was able to study was late; when the kids have gone to bed. Were we to have set rigid dates/times for study activities and formative assessment there would be problems for many students. As we are flexible, employers often show their appreciation by offering students study time during some working weeks to make up for times they have higher workloads and are not able to carry out study related activities.

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