Have you ever had students questioning you about why they have received an unexpected grade? While you are sure you have taught your students what they need for an assessment task, do they know they know about this? This article will introduce a three-step learning and teaching strategy that aims to strengthen and make explicit the link between everyday learning and teaching, assessment tasks and their relevant learning outcomes. This strategy is suitable for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and other tertiary learning and teaching contexts. In Step 1, the potentially subjective language used in rubrics and marking criteria is clarified. In Step 2, a learning and teaching portfolio is built to link assessment tasks to what has been learned. In Step 3, learners are guided to apply the relevant skills and knowledge learned in one single activity.
Context and background
My colleagues and I, who have been teaching across disciplines and institutions at various levels of higher education in Australia and overseas, have always tried our best to scaffold relevant knowledge and skills to our learners. Despite that, a theme recurs among comments we receive from end-of-course student surveys:
Learner from a master level pre-service teacher training programme: ‘I struggled a bit with the second assignment as […] I think a lot of students didn’t know what was expected of them in this assignment. Maybe showing more examples would be helpful?’ – when self-access examples have already been made available.
Faculty from a pre-university intensive English programme: ‘The descriptors [marking criteria] are couched in highly subjective language and cannot successfully lead to consistent, objective grades from the various teachers (who all have their own understandings of exactly what “confident use”, “may distract” and “seldom” mean when deciding a grade).’
Guided by Biggs & Tang’s (2011) Constructive Alignment (see Figure 1), a critical reflection on recurring accounts like the ones presented above reveals a clear misalignment between our curriculum design and delivery; more specifically, a misalignment between programmes’ learning and teaching activities, assessment tasks and eventually the learners’ attainment of relevant intended learning outcomes (Abrami et al, 1990; Brookfield, 2017; Marsh & Roche, 1997; Moss, 2004; Yorke, 2009).
Figure 1. Constructive alignment between elements of learning units. *AT=Assessment Task.
Curriculum design studies including those of Bloxham et al (2015), Bloxham et al (2011), Bloxham & Boyd (2007) and Hammer (2007) share the observation that many teaching staff and learners of today’s tertiary education lack a clear understanding of how to apply marking criteria and rubrics to the relevant learning, teaching and assessment process. Such literature also concurs that the potentially subjective language used in marking criteria is found to be challenging to most learners, especially those with an international and/or English as an Additional Language/Dialect (EAL/D) background. This ambiguous language makes these criteria difficult to understand, and hence makes the corresponding assessment task all the more inaccessible to not only learners but in many cases teaching staff also. As of 2018, international students accounted for approximately 23% (almost 1 in 4 learners) of the Australian higher education student body in 2018 (Parliament of Australia, 2019). They are the ones who are usually quite unfamiliar with the learning and teaching style, academic skills required and assessment processes of the Australian higher education system. As such, we may want to consider whether protocols are needed to better align teaching staff/assessors and all learners’ interpretation of marking criteria, and more importantly, whether learners need to be shown explicitly how their daily/weekly/yearly learning is linked to the assessment tasks that they attempt, which ultimately generate evidence of our learners’ attainment of the relevant intended learning outcomes (Biggs & Tang, 2011).
Informed by the discussion presented above, the idea of engaging higher education learners more explicitly with the primary assessment tool – the rubric – during the learning and teaching process was formed. The three-step learning and teaching strategy proposed below aims at achieving exactly this.
1. The three-step learning & teaching strategy
Figure 2 details how the proposed steps work in concert to develop ‘within students the ability to monitor their own learning and standards’ (Angelo, 2012: 105). Nulty’s (2017) 3A (Traffic Light) Model is incorporated into this learning and teaching strategy and each step is interrelated.
Figure 2. The three-step learning and teaching strategy for unpacking marking criteria/rubrics of chosen task.
Simply put, Step 1 – Understanding the marking criteria – focuses on unpacking the generally subjective language used in marking criteria and aligning different parties’ interpretation on the marking criteria while Step 2 – Creating a portfolio of learning and teaching materials – links assessment tasks to the corresponding learning and teaching strategies and intended learning outcomes.
Step 3 – Consensus moderation on sample assessment tasks – provides learners with samples/exemplars of the relevant task and the opportunity to apply in one exercise all learned skills and knowledge pertaining to the task when making use of the relevant rubric. This learning and teaching strategy shows learners how all the elements taught/learned interrelate and function together as a system: the last ‘whole’ in Knowles et al’s (2015) Whole-Part-Whole (WPW) Model.
The formulation of every element of this learning and teaching strategy is informed by Kolb et al’s (1999) Experiential Learning Theory and Vygotsky’s (1978; McLeod, 2012) Theory of Zone of Proximal Development, in that learners are provided with structured opportunities to learn through doing things, with strategic assistance from knowledgeable others; in this case, their instructor and potentially their peers.
Figure 3. Examples of vocabulary items international EAP learners in an ELICOS programme in Australia have identified.
2. Significance of the proposed three-step learning & teaching strategy
A review of relevant literature highlights that implicit in the Higher Education Standards Framework used by the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) for the governing of all higher education programmes in Australia is Biggs & Tang’s (2011) Constructive Alignment (Ministry of Education and Training, Australian Government, 2015; Nulty, 2016; Nulty, 2017). This is the same theoretical paradigm that drives the conceptualisation and implementation of the three-step learning and teaching strategy proposed in this article. This three-step learning and teaching strategy provides a new set of coherent learning and teaching strategies that aims to improve leaners’ metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies needed to learn effectively in most if not all Australian higher education disciplines (Angelo, 2012; Rust et al, 2003). At the same time, the proposed steps provide an opportunity for teaching staff to first align their interpretation of marking criteria and consider even before the teaching process starts what they would like to see in a good response for a summative assessment task set at the end of the same teaching process.
In addition, the proposed three-step learning and teaching strategy aims to place learners at the core of the learning and teaching, and assessment process. It also helps to form the desired social/interactive assessment processes through increasing, in both the teaching and assessment process, interactions between learners, between learners and faculty members, and between faculty members (Angelo, 2012; Bloxham et al, 2015; Stefani, 2009). It is hoped that these more social/interactive assessment processes will provide the platform for both learners and faculty, who are closest to their learning and/or teaching, to partake in co-constructing their learning and teaching experience through structured and respectful discourses.
Figure 4. Interpretation of marking criteria created with international EAP learners in an ELICOS programme in Australia.
Figure 5. Example of a portfolio of learning and teaching materials built with international EAP learners in an ELICOS programme in Australia.
3. Final tips
Finding sufficient time to incorporate these steps into already crowded curricula is clearly challenging. To combat this, instructors can consider the following:
- In Step 2, you can demonstrate in class how to build a part of the learning and teaching portfolio and set the rest as individual or group work. Learners in groups can share their questions and/or different versions of their learning and teaching portfolio in a discussion forum via your programme’s online learning management system. The ongoing discussion in this forum often takes on a life of its own, which without a doubt will better inform learners of their own learning through a peer-led critical reflection process.
- In Step 3, instead of workshopping through three (High/Medium/Low) samples, instructors can focus on only a good and a borderline pass/fail sample. It’s suggested the good sample comes first so that learners will have a good idea of how they can improve the borderline pass/fail sample after the benchmarking/consensus moderation exercise.
- Remember to get consent from learners for our use of their work in the teaching process!
- Ask a colleague qualified in the field to moderate your samples if you are the only one teaching or are new to an assessment task. You then know you are backed!
Figure 6 & 7. Images of in-class moderation conducted with international EAP learners.
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Gus Wong is currently an ELICOS teacher at Monash College. Having served as Lecturer at Australian Catholic University for almost a decade and ELICOS Curriculum Coordinator between 2017–19, Gus has developed specialisations in academic areas that include Curriculum Alignment, Teaching Theories and Practices, Linguistics, Multimodal Literacies, Social Justice, and Gaming Strategies for Learning and Teaching. Gus.Wong@monashcollege.edu.au