Reimann, Nicola and Harman, Kerry and Wilson, Angelina and McDowell, Liz
Learning to assess in higher education: exploring the interplay of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ learning in the academic workplace.
In: Higher Education Close Up 5., 20-22 July 2010, Lancaster, UK.
While there has been considerable research into HE teachers’ development and their conceptions of teaching more generally (see, for instance, Trigwell et al., 1994, Trigwell et al., 1999, Kane et al., 2002, Eley, 2006), the way in which HE staff become assessors and learn about assessment has not been widely researched. Researchers such as Knight et al. (2006) have highlighted the importance of non-/informal learning in the academic workplace, and there is conflicting evidence for the impact of more formal academic development. Research on workplace learning stresses that formal and informal dimensions of learning are intertwined, but also that formal learning opportunities have a role to play in the development of expertise (Tynjälä, 2008).
This paper explores the ways in which academics learn to assess in HE. It draws on empirical data from two research projects undertaken at one UK university. The ‘assessment cultures’ project explores interrelationships between socio-cultural context and academic assessment practices. 37 interviews were conducted; 24 initial and 13 follow-up interviews. In the initial interviews lecturers described how they assess in specific modules they teach. In the follow-up interviews themes such as disciplinary and occupational background and the ways lecturers learned to assess were explored. The ‘staff learning’ project examines learning about assessment through different types of academic development: a compulsory course on assessment for new academics, a module on assessment for learning for experienced staff and a university assessment for learning network providing support and activities to its members. 31 semi-structured interviews were conducted: 17 with network members, 8 with participants of the course for new academics and 6 with participants of the course on assessment for learning. Interviewees were asked about the benefits or otherwise of the type of academic development experienced, changes in their understanding of assessment and changes in their assessment practices.
Taken together, the data generated by the two projects provide insight into the complex process whereby formal and informal interact. Using data from the two projects has enabled us to extend the scope of each individual project in order to address questions which could otherwise not have been answered. It has also provided an opportunity to examine the data through the lenses of different theoretical frameworks, thus heightening our awareness for the ‘the theoretical frames of reference and methodological approaches which shape (…) [our] knowledge claims’ (Shay, p.1). The collaboration has increased our awareness for our own approaches and backgrounds and has required us to engage with each others’ theoretical and professional perspectives: that of Foucauldian post-structuralism and a focus on the discursive construction of identity with that of academic development and a focus on scholarship of teaching and learning and evaluation of academic development initiatives. It has also meant drawing on each others’ respective research backgrounds in student and teacher learning in higher education research on the one hand and workplace learning research on the other. In the critical review of student learning research which Shay refers to in her ‘think piece’, Haggis (2009) explicitly highlights the potential of the workplace learning literatures and debates for ‘thinking differently’ about higher education research. By challenging ways of knowing through collaboration, the paper intends to make a contribution to the ‘region’ (Shay, p.2).
Our focus in the analysis is on the interrelationships between theoretical concepts and assessment practices. In some interviews encounters with a concept such as ‘assessment for learning’ were described as a lens which sheds light onto existing assessment practices as well as a tool which enables the development of practice. This draws attention to the importance of the discursive resources that are available to academics for talking about their practice. In addition, certain ways of learning appear to be significant both in everyday workplace practice and in academic development activities, for instance learning from and through others. Interaction with other members of staff, particularly from other disciplines, enables staff to question the taken for granted and re-think their assessment practices.
The data suggest that the simple distinction between formal and informal learning in the academic workplace may be too crude and that it may therefore be difficult to evaluate or ‘prove’ the impact of formal learning opportunities. However, the findings have implications for academic development since they draws attention to the potential of specific types of ideas and learning activities to transform understandings of assessment and assessment practices.
The paper will discuss the main findings as well as the benefits and challenges of working with data across two research projects with different theoretical underpinnings.
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