Developing a conceptual model for the effective assessment of individual student learning in team-based subjects

Assessment of student learning in team-based subjects can be challenging, as the inherent complexity in this learning environment can create ambiguity for academic staff and students alike. Research project gathered data from academic staff and students about their experiences with assessment in team-based settings, data which served as a support for the development of a conceptual model for effective assessment of individual student learning in this highly collaborative setting.

Assessment is a significant “driver” of student learning in that students may engage a subject’s activities in direct relation to the weighting that these activities are given in the assessment process (Wormald et al, 2009). Biggs & Tang (2007) suggested that student learning is maximised (and assessment is made more effective) by a “constructive alignment” of learning outcomes, the subject’s activities, and assessment methods. Experience suggests that a team-based learning context poses a unique challenge in terms of designing assessment for individual students that does not compromise the collaborative spirit of this learning and teaching approach.

Assessment must serve both the student and the institution. Assessment serves the institution when it gathers information about students’ engagement with and achievement of academic standards (assessment of learning or summative assessment). Assessment in team-based pedagogies such as project-based learning (PBL) can also include assessment activities that directly support and promote student learning (assessment for learning or formative assessment), with these activities often designed to help students explicate and reflect upon their own learning (Weimer, 2002). Learning outcomes can serve multiple purposes in a particular subject. It is argued that one important role these outcomes play is to demarcate the intellectual contract between students and staff in terms of the subject’s content.

Often this contract is framed in subject profiles by describing the learning outcomes with some variation on the following words: “By the end of this subject, you will be able to…”

The Learning Outcomes Process is designed to make this contract explicit and real for instructors and students by outlining the types of evidence that students will be required to produce for each learning outcome. The instructor supports students’ taking ownership of their own learning by engaging in on-going dialogue about the specific learning outcomes being engaged in a particular activity and, during assessment activities, quality standards for expected evidence at each grade level (ie. from fail to pass to high distinction). This level of transparency is especially critical complex learning environments for team-based project-driven subjects, where students must balance their project-wide learning focus (building broad understanding) while often “specialising” in a particular aspect of the project.

An integral aspect of co-creating learning intent for students is guidance in producing evidence of their own learning. In the Evidence Process, the instructor engages both individual students and student teams in an on-going dialogue about the requirements and indicators of quality for a particular activity. This guidance is framed in terms of building evidence of engagement with the learning outcomes involved. While learning outcomes can guide the design of an effective subject, staff and students may have limited ability to interpret the wording of these outcomes and to understand them in concrete and demonstrable ways. This Evidence Process is designed to concretise both instructors’ and students’ understanding of the learning outcomes across the term by positioning the learning outcomes at the heart of the assessment process (and students’ final grades.)

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