Rationale behind Selecting Essay Writing as Chosen Assessment

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Methods and strategies of assessment, in recent years, have become a quite heated subject in relation to validating the learning process and measuring the learning outcomes. Ramsden (1992) explained that the methods of assessment are essential in forming the structure of the curriculum. It is eminent to understand that the choice of an assessment strategy, as discussed by Bloxham and Boyd (2007), constitutes a major role in reaching the overall learning objectives, and that it could hugely affect the students' motivation and perception of taught materials. It is therefore imperative to design an effective strategy or strategies of assessment that will promote the notion of "assessment for learning" (Earl 2003).

In this rationale, I will start by discussing the term "assessment for learning" and its relevance in the learning process, and to the objectives structured for this particular module. I will then present brief analysis of the different methods of assessment available for this module's main assignment, and how each of them can be effective in achieving the overall learning outcomes. Finally I will briefly discuss the effectiveness of implementing these methods in my field of work (computing and programming).

Assessment for Learning, as discussed by Jones (2005), is mainly concerned about bridging the relation between the teachers and the learners, by which the later could be effectively informed about their progress, and the means by which they can improve their performance and attain the desired outcomes. Jones continues to explain that one of the key aspects to support assessment for learning is provide the learners with a degree of flexibility that, while still motivating them, allow them to develop at their own pace, and to take key decisions or activities when needed. This concept was adopted in this module by involving us within the assessment process in the early stages of learning, and providing a degree of flexibility and inclusiveness through offering to elect the desired suitable method of assessment.

A study by Scouller (1997) revealed that many students are lenient towards writing an essay as a method of assessment due to the substantial 'Depth of Knowledge' involved. Essays are mostly formed of open-ended questions, like "discuss, explain, analyse, and evaluate", constituting the critical evaluation nature of the essay, which was the main reason for me to elect writing an essay. I am offered a degree of liberty and flexibility to outline the structure and flow of information and to nominate the areas to highlight and concentrate on. More importantly, I am given the chance to impose my personality and portray my identity in my views. Writing an essay on a topic requires not only a profound understanding of the presented learning materials, but also going the extra mile for researching relevant work and resources available on this particular topic. Essay writing, however, requires a certain degree of proficiency, which may be a challenge regarding presentation of the argument, retaining the readers' engagement, maintaining the context and scope of the essay, and constructing a conclusion.

Group project assessment, as discussed by Atherton (2009), is an effective form of collaborative assessment, if carefully designed and implemented, and where a certain degree of social cohesion between members is present. Working in a group has valuable assets in gaining experience from other group members. Another advantage is to distribute the workload among the members, which -in theory- minimises the overall workload for an individual (compared to writing a whole essay), and provides an opportunity to focus on a specific sub-element of the research resulting in a more profound analysis. Despite of these advantages, I have chosen to opt out of working within a group. The degree of freedom I can attain within writing an essay is severely compromised in a group work. The general opinions and views presented in the final product have to be agreed by the majority of the group members, and do not necessarily reflect my own views. Another key reason is the absence of colleagues working within my relevant field of experience. One final reason is delegating the research of sub-elements to the group members; this can limits the overall knowledge of learning materials, compared to the wider range that I can be attained from individual work.

Patchwork text, similar to essay writing, is an individual form of assessment that can reflect the writer's critical views. It differs from essay in breaking down the taught materials into sub-sections, where each section is analysed and assessed on its own. Though I believe this is an effective method of assessment, my teaching and research commitments have laid a heavy constrain in terms of time and flexibility. In different situations, I might have opted for the patchwork text assessment, as one of its key advantages is that it pushes the student to do a more in-depth analysis of each section of the module, thus being more effective in achieving the overall learning objectives.

Though I have expressed my enthusiasm about essay writing as a suitable and effective method of assessment in this module for its critical evaluation nature, depth of information, and degree of freedom offered, it is not necessarily applicable to other pedagogical practices, including my own; computing and programming. The type of materials being presented in a module, and manner of work demanded from the students normally shapes the nature of assessment (Bloxham and Boyd, 2007). As most of the materials presented in computing verge on the technical side, other methods of assessment (like presentations, portfolios, and group projects) could become more appropriate within the module context and effective towards achieving the overall learning outcomes. Computing students involve usability testing and evaluation generally in their software development process, so they have some experience for knowing what assessment methods can prove effective in which context. In theoretical modules (like Human-Computer Interaction) which demand a profound level of literature and adaptation to one or more theoretical approach to problem solving, essay writing and patchwork text could prove quite effective.

ESSAY: Developing Assessment Strategies to Promote Student Learning in Computer Science Education.

INTRODUCTION

Assessment -as a term- is derived from the Latin word assidere, and relates to "sitting beside or with" students to help understand their characteristics and motivations, and assist them in overcoming the learning challenges and develop their knowledge (Wiggins, 1993). Assessment contemplates an interactive cooperative relationship between the teacher and the learner through which not only the knowledge gained validated, but also a structure for the learner's performance development is set. In this essay I will discuss how assessment can be utilised for the purpose of promoting the students' learning process, with special emphasis on my discipline; Computer Science and Programming.

PROMOTING LEARNING THROUGH ASSESSMENT

The prevalent type of assessment employed by schools and universities for decades is the 'Assessment of learning'. Earl (2003) explained that summative nature of this type of assessment aims to certify the learning process and to mould it into a symbolically expressed progress report (marks or grades); which is more often than not relative to other students within the same context, rather than absolute indication of the student's achievement.

"Even when lecturers say that they want students to be creative and thoughtful, students often recognise that what is really necessary, or at least what is sufficient, is to memorise" (Gibbs, 1992, p.10)

Earl (2003), among many others, argued that assessment of learning deprives students' creativity and does not reflect the true attained knowledge and the set of skills gained throughout the taught course. This is because the summative assessment relies on tests that are normally very limited in its contents, leading to a simplistic marking scheme and thus turning assessment as a tool of 'measurement' rather than a method of learning. Serafini (2000) explained that 'assessment as measurement' can not test valuable assets that should be learnt and developed like independent critical thinking, and can never accurately reflect students' capabilities. I do have some preservations on Serafini's argument, as I believe it is still important to measure students' performance and capabilities summatively in some specific cases, but I agree with Biggs and Tang (2007) that the current methods of measurement are leaning towards the quantitative rather than the qualitative aspect of measurement.

Promoting the learning process starts by designing an effective assessment and feedback process (Bloxham and Boyd, 2007), thus 'assessment of learning' is falling and will always fall short in achieving the required efficiency of the learning process (knight, 2002), and hence, employing a rather more effective method like 'assessment for learning' is eminent. Black et al (2003) define assessment for learning as 'all those activities undertaken by teachers and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged'. They explained that assessment for learning focuses on bridging the gap between the teacher and learner, and providing accurate relevant specification of opportunities for students to iterate, revisit, and evaluate their work and reflect upon potentials and drawbacks in order to facilitate reaching their desired goals and achieving the overall learning objectives. Assessment for learning, according to Earl (2003), is valuable in its interim interaction between the teacher and the student, relying on formative feedback in various nodes during the course delivery, rather than one ineffective summative feedback towards the end of the course.

Earl (2003) presented some suggestions for reinforcing formative assessment through introducing the notion 'Assessment as learning'. This concept "emphasises the role of the student, not only as a contributor to the assessment and learning process, but also as a critical connector between them" (Earl, 2003, p.25). This concept suggests higher degree of involvement of students in self-motivating, monitoring their learning, and making critical adaptation to master the skills and knowledge involved and required. Recordkeeping is the recommended method for students and teacher to present evidence of learning and personal development.

Sadly, we have lived for decades inheriting the belief that measuring students' knowledge and performance can only be accurate and accredited through quantitative summative assessment. Universities demand minimum scores on mark-sheets for students to be able to pursue their higher education. Sponsors -including families- always demand a formal feedback and assurance for a return for their investments, which is often validated through transcripts and grade reports. Employers generally are influenced in their decisions to employ graduates by the grades they attained during their studies. In this sense, the assessment process for students has become a 'measure' as well as a 'motivation'.

Rowntree (1987) argued that the motivational purpose of assessment is the most directly relevant to the students, as it constitutes 'the carrot, and the big stick'. Motivational assessment is not discouraged, in fact it is recommended, if moulded in the right format. Motivation doesn't have to be through encouraging getting a high mark to reserve a place in the ever-growing competitive market (the big stick), but more through encouraging students to value and comprehend the assets of the required learning objectives, and their effect on their future career (the carrot).

It is eminent to understand that to improve the learning process, changing the way we motivate and measure our students' performance is only the beginning. The major aspect of achieving this is to change the currently prevailing paradigm from valuing quantitative summative feedback to appreciating that for students to graduate a course, they are qualitatively assessed and thus deemed fit and qualified for developing their careers.

STUDENTS' ENGAGEMENT IN ASSESSMENT

Engaging students in the assessment process is a major aspect in improving the overall learning experience and achieving the general learning objectives. Smith and Colby (2007) argued that the appropriate learning process should not be bounded by just understanding the surface facts and features of a specified assessment for the sole purpose of evaluation, but should involve students' reflection and critical evaluation into the learning experience. This argument was supported by Carless (2007), where "Learning Oriented Assessment" principles were outlined; focusing on the importance that assessment should include active involvement of students, engaging them in setting the criteria ("Cooperative Assessment"), and criticizing the performance of their peers ("Peer Assessment"), as well as their own performance ("Self Assessment").

Self assessment is one of the key methods that could be implemented for promoting the formative principle of assessment (assessment for learning), rather than the summative rationale for measurement and evaluation. It is a mean by which the students get to be the judge of their own work. They can set their own -or be provided by- assessment criteria that will fully outline the aims and objectives behind their work, and the degree by which these objectives were achieved. Self assessment has been proven an effective method to increase students' involvement and engagement in the learning process (Falchikov, 2004), and it has the potential to:

Develop the students' ability to think critically about their own work and evaluate their overall learning outcomes.

Help the students' participate in facilitating and improving their learning curriculum through involving them in setting the criteria on which they can judge their own work.

Self-monitor, and self-correct; where the students can iterate their own work after evaluating it to fill-in any gaps, or improve the overall contents.

Enable the students to identify the areas of skills they need to keep and areas of weakness they need to address and improve (Liebovich, 2000).

Peer assessment is another fundamental aspect of formative assessment. It is based on constructive involvement of students working within a group to assess other members' collaboration and valued input towards achieving the overall group objectives (Boud, Cohen, and Simpson, 1999). They explained that involving peers in the learning and assessment process encourages a cooperative and collaborative -rather than an individual/competitive- manner of work and learning, and encourages students to benefit from their peers' knowledge and experience. Many studies have proved that students benefit a lot from giving formative feedback to other students, as well as receiving it.

Group projects are increasingly encouraged in higher education. However, the benefits accomplished from the collaborative nature of group work can be overshadowed by pragmatic issues that can be involved within the group. Helms and Haynes (1990) explained that among the reasons for group work dysfunction are the characteristics of members (age, culture, religion, language, etc), lack of mutual trust, and possible interpersonal conflicts. Thus, careful consideration and a solid structure of assessment should be implemented in the initial process of allocating group members and specifying the degree of involvement for the peer assessment to be effective. Peer assessment is not only a tool for encouraging students to be more involved and included within the learning process, but also a catalyst that will ignite students towards scripting the assessment criteria upon which they will assess their peers, and also will be accordingly assessed upon. The extent of motivation obtained by peer-assessment is beneficial in reaching the degree of involvement effective in fostering the lifelong learning concept (Boud, Cohen, and Simpson, 1999).

In the field of Computing and software development, we always encourage students to work within a group to develop a project, in a sense that emulates what they will be doing after graduation, as most software projects are developed in teams or collaborative parties. Peer assessment comes very effective in the project development context, as the students will start to constitute roles and delegate tasks. They will understand from the very beginning of the process that their contribution will be evaluated, thus having good motivation to be involved in various phases of the project development and contributing effectively to satisfy other group members. In one of the modules that I taught this year (2009/10), I have involved students in an intra form of peer evaluation rather than the standard inter assessment form (Sullivan et al, 1999). Students were divided into groups where each group developed a website as a project. One of the most important phases of application development is 'Usability Testing and Evaluation', where students assess different aspects of usability of their designs. I have asked the students to sit with each other (as groups) and each group will peer-assess the other group's work. The students then had to come up with their own assessment criteria for other groups, and critically evaluate the work developed according to these criteria. I believe this process was quite effective in gaining experience with regards to not only the feedback that they got from other groups, but also from being involved as assessors to evaluate achieving the overall objectives, and thus iterating their own designs, so in a way it is "Self Assessment by Peer Assessment".

'Collaborative assessment' is another important aspect for involving students in the assessment process. Hall (1995) defined collaborative assessment (or co-assessment) as a process in which the student and the teacher participate in structuring an effective form of assessment. In this process, the student and the teacher present their views and opinions and negotiate assessment method or methods with their relevant sets of criteria, in order to effectively facilitate reaching the overall learning outcomes. Students' involvement in such manner, according to kegan (1994), provides a high degree of acceptance, responsibility, and motivation towards attaining the desired outcomes. The students can have a say in scripting the assessment towards their areas of interest, comfort, and strength, and where they believe they can excel and develop their skills.

Many have argued that co-assessment might prove pragmatic and ineffective (Hall, 1995). However, I believe that it is one of the most essential aspects that can improve the overall learning process. I encountered a big problem during teaching a programming module during the first semester of 2009/10. The programming module was introductory and thus students from all branches of computing had to take this module in their first year. The assignment was designed for the interest of a specific group of students (Multimedia students), where all the students where asked to write programs to manipulate images and sound files. I sensed a lot of de-motivation and lack of interest in other groups of students, where they did not understand why they need to do such assignment, and how good would this benefit their development. I believe implementing co-assessment in this case could have proved very effective, where, for example, networking students could have negotiated a manner of assessment that could have been of interest and relevance towards their overall progress. Thus it is important to engage the students as a tool for promoting the notion of assessment for learning, in order to understand their needs and improve their interest and motivation.

INCLUSIVE ASSESSMENT

The World Health Organization defines Disability as "an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions" [1] . As studies show that the number of students with a degree of disability within the UK higher education institutes has significantly increased in recent years, it is important to reform strategies for learning and assessment through which these students are not disadvantaged (Sharp and Earle, 2000). Teachers in Higher Educations, as argued by Davies & Evans (1995), should offer disables students alternative forms of assessment if they think that their disability will inhibit them from being assessed equally to their non disabled peers. Many institutions have adopted the alternative forms of assessment for disabled students to support "equal opportunities" principals among them (Wade, 1994).

Generally there are three different approaches, as discussed by the University of Plymouth (2006), which are used in assessing disabled students. Two of these are set as compensational methods exclusively designed for assessing disabled students, while the third one is suitable for the wide diversity of student:

Contingent approach; this approach is basically an adjustment into the regular existing system with some special arrangements done for disabled students. For example: adding extra time to the original time frame of the exam for students with dyslexia, preparing seating adjustments for students with mobility impairments, or even in some cases providing own room during exam.

Alternative approach; which could be a last resort when the contingent approach fails to accommodate the disabled students' needs. This approach is usually used by a minority of disables students and it involves changing the kind of assessment, for example from a written assessment into a viva voce.

The inclusive approach, where teachers provide a list of assessments form that is presented to all students, and each student choose the form of assessment they think is more suitable for them, these forms of assessments should be capable of assessing the learning for all students regardless of the different forms but generate the same learning outcome.

The first two approaches are the most commonly used for accommodating students with special needs in higher education, as they are easier to implement and maintain. However, these approaches may not be the most effective or considerate to the diverse range of students. Sharp and Earle (2000) argued that accommodating disabled students through compensation approaches might promote equal opportunity, however, it does little to promote the notion of equality, inclusiveness, and non-discrimination. It is thus recommended to outline inclusive practices for learning and assessment which will include the widest diversity of students, making the process more accessible for all, rather than merely relying on 'reasonable adjustments' which could result in a feeling of discrimination, de-motivation, and lowering in self-esteem (The Disability Rights Commission, 2007)

In my field of work, as there are many technical teaching materials presented, so extra effort should be made to pre-list the lectures note online few days before the lecture. Special arrangements are also needed in presenting the lectures using different audio-visual aspects, and in alternative formats. Code fragments can be very hard to read for dyslexic or visually impaired students, so a reasonable font and lines spacing should be considered in lecture notes and handouts. More importantly, assessment methods should be flexible and negotiable, providing the students early in the course with a set of methods where they can choose which one suits their capabilities, for example students with mobility or 'reach and stretch' problems can choose to be assessed verbally though a presentation of their designs, while students with speech impairments can choose to write a report on their software development methodologies.

Inclusive arrangements for learning and assessment need a bit more effort initially from teachers for preparation and delivery of the course materials. The effort made in creating a 'Universal' learning environment to 'include' all students will have a positive effect not only on the disabled students, but also on the whole group, as they will all benefit from better preparation and more flexibility in presented materials (Bolt et al, 2008).

PROMOTING LEARNING THROUGH FEEDBACK

One of the vital bases for promoting learning through formative assessment is a well structured effective feedback. Hattie and Timperley (2007) defined feedback as the information returned by an agent, which reflects on the aspects of one's performance and knowledge. Juwah et al (2004) explained that the source (agent) of effective formative feedback is not restricted exclusively to teachers, as it could be the outcome of intra and inter-peer review, or even self assessment. For many years, feedback was implemented without reaching its potential effectiveness; focusing more on comments made on students' completed work for justifying a grade or mark attained in an assessment, in a manner that certifies or warrants their achievement, branding it "Feedout" (Knight, 2002). It was argued by Boud and Falchikov (2007), that feedback should allow students to apprehend their performance level and in turn go on to restructure and build on their ability and perceptions which enhance their learning and achievements. Teachers also benefit from feedback, as it helps in understanding thoroughly students' needs and areas of weakness and required improvement; as a result teachers rethink and realign their teaching strategies accordingly. In this sense, feedback is referred to as "feed-forward".

Black and William (1998) analytical work reviews - along with many other researchers- was highlighted and summarized by Sadler (1989) where he identified three vital rules for students to benefit from feedback:

Feedback should help students to have a clear perception of the goals and objectives to be targeted. This benchmark will assist students in understanding the quality of a good performance, and motivate them to aim for it.

Feedback should carry out a comparison between the actual students' performance and the targeted benchmark, thus identifying the variance in performance level.

Feedback should help students to participate and engage in an appropriate action plan which should result in minimize the performance variance or gap.

A number of researchers critically analysed feedback models and outlined the basis of providing a good and effective feedback that can enhance the learning process. Juwah et al (2004) presented seven key principles for formulating an effective feedback:

Developing students' critical evaluation to promote self-assessment. (Yorke, 2003) concluded that although it is important to deliver a comprehensible feedback message, it is of equal importance for teachers to direct their energy on reinforcing the basic skills of self- assessment for students. 

Promoting students' involvement in dialogues related to the learning outcomes.  It is even more effective when participating in a group of peers to outline the main objectives of assessment.

Clearly identifying good practice and professional standards. In computing and programming, this is quite important. A good programmer can be identified not only by his programming skills, but also by his adherence to good practice of coding. Thus it is advised that students are informed at early stages about the good and bad practices of the profession in the forms of samples, exemplars, or written documentation (Orsmond, Merry and Reiling, 2002).

Developing and formulating method for bridging the 'learning gap'; between where they are in the current state, and where they need to be. The only way a feedback can be effective is when a noticeable improvement in students' performance is noted (Boud et al, 2007).

Shifting feedback more into the quality of learning and less into justification of grading. Feedback should be delivered shortly after submission, and should be informative and focusing on aspects of quality for academic development.

Feedback should be used as a motivational tool. It is recommended to avoid the marking system as much as possible, as studies have proved that students focus mostly on grades rather than feedback comments, which in turn hinders their performance development (Dweck, 2000). Students should be motivated by effective informative feedback.

Feedback should assist the development of subsequent teaching. Feedback is not just of benefit to the student, but also for the assessor, as it constitutes areas of improvement and development of course structure and delivery, as well as assessment planning (Yorke, 2003).

It is now clear that feedback is the mean by which 'assessment for learning' could be implemented and maintained. As formative assessment rely less on marking and more providing information for quality improvement, feedback is the key to accomplish this objective.

ASSESSMENT FOR LEARNING IN COMPUTING EDUCATION

Throughout my discussion of various aspects through which assessment for learning can be implemented to promote the learning process, I have presented some case studies and guidelines relating to my discipline of computing and programming technologies. I have earlier emphasised the importance of introducing self assessment within the individual project, especially in the early years where it is important that students reflect on their initial knowledge of the new terms, technologies, and methodologies of software development. Intra and inter-peer assessment should also be encouraged (Sullivan et al, 1999), particularly in the second year where students are involved in at least two group projects, enabling them to learn by getting experience and feedback from their peers. Co-assessment (Hall, 1995) is also vital throughout all taught years, in order to involve and engage students actively in formulating personalised methods that will assist and motivate them reaching the desired learning outcomes.

Assessment has a major role in the validation and quality assurance of the learning process, especially in computing education, but without consideration of 'assessment for learning' there is a substantial risk that this role would be lost, and we would still rely on the inappropriate quantitative outcomes. Assessing programming qualities is particularly tricky, as lines of code can be copied among number of students and slightly altered and submitted as the assignment. In the past, we used to ask students to write a brief report on their methodology for developing the program code, but this didn't validate that they have the quality to write this code and pass this module. I believe one valid solution for this problem is implementing tougher and more personalised form of assessment. Students can be assigned relatively tougher program requirements, but asked to work individually on separate part of the program, and towards the end, every few students combine their work together to achieve the final outcome (individual work leading to group work, where self, peer, and collaborative assessment can be implemented). In this sense assessment is designed for serving and validating the learning process in negating the possibility of students relying on memorising for exams, or on plagiarism (even by copying code from colleagues or from online resources), and by promoting creativity, personalisation, and critical evaluation.

As there are increasing numbers of disabled students seeking a degree in computing, I believe it is quite important to accommodate these students' needs and provide them with equal opportunity in assessment through adopting the "Inclusive Approach" for assessment. Methods for applying these approaches in computing education have been discussed earlier.

In teaching computing, feedback is quite essential, as mentioned earlier, in providing effective guide towards best practice and professional standards in many aspects like coding, user-interface design, and software development.

I have discussed in this essay the importance of promoting formative assessment or 'assessment for learning'. I have discussed the means by which students' involvement and engagement, effective feedback, and universal inclusive design for learning and assessment can promote the notion of 'assessment for learning' in general and with special emphasis on the field of 'Computer Science and Programming' .

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