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Queens University Belfast Senior Manager Perspective

Ellen Douglas-Cowie

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Students


Project: e-Assessment and Feedback for Effective Course Transformation( e-AFFECT) project

Programme: Assessment and Feedback


Since 2005, the National Student Survey (NSS) has exposed assessment and feedback as the lowest rated aspect of the student learning experience within Queen’s. Improving this has been a university priority given its impact on student learning. Queen’s own First and Second Year Experience Surveys (introduced in 2007 and 2008) confirm that the problem exists at all levels. Queen’s sought to address the challenge of assessment and feedback through a Higher Education Academy Enhancement Academy project. Five school-based projects developed practical solutions to enhancing practice. Bespoke online resources based on the Re-engineering Assessment Practices project (REAP) principles of good practice were developed which include exemplars from within the university. This was accompanied by an institution-wide feedback campaign led by the Students’ Union to enhance student understanding and use of feedback. Whilst institutionally there has been some improvement in NSS scores over the last two years from 3.4 to 3.6 in 2011 it is not consistent across all subject areas. Indeed, in some areas it has either deteriorated or remained low. Barriers to change in assessment practices include concerns about workload and losing personal contact with students. e-AFFECT aims to build upon existing good practice and drive strategic change with respect to assessment and feedback at Queen’s.


The project seeks to change processes and practices in schools to improve the student experience of early formative feedback. In particular, it will focus on timeliness of feedback, the quality of feedback, developing a dialogue between staff and students on feedback and the requirement to match student needs with staff workload as well as engender greater student engagement with the feedback provided. This will be done by identifying opportunities to promote new behaviours in assessment and feedback supported by the use of appropriate tools. A flexible and responsive approach to variable needs using a choice of technologies where appropriate is supporting institution-wide change in assessment and feedback process and practice.


Alignment with institutional agendas and strategies

e-AFFECT is a flagship project to address the key issue of assessment and feedback, which is currently at the heart of an institutional drive to enhance the student experience at Queen’s. The project therefore supports the university in the implementation of its Education Strategy which is closely aligned to its Corporate Plan for the next five years, the essence of which is to develop an exceptional student experience, leading to graduates who are fit for global employment. The project has highlighted the link between assessment and how students acquire high level graduate skills; this aligns with the core strategy relating to employability. The project is of absolute importance to the university as there is variable understanding of the institution’s poor NSS scores for assessment and feedback. E-AFFECT will allow the university to explore the problem and develop solutions, including researching how best to support student transition from A-level study. The institution needs to address the fact that students don’t understand what assessment should be about and what graduate skills are – and that is why the e-AFFECT project started by working with and engaging students.


The e-AFFECT project, to me, is a kind of flagship … for how it can help us get inroads into one of the key issues which we feel is a real problem at the moment, which is assessment and feedback.”


Impact on staff culture and capabilities

It is intended that the project will lead to change in academic practice, particularly in relation to the provision of timely and effective feedback and getting encouraging academics to think about assessment in terms of how it promotes student learning, rather than a rather formulaic approach. It is also hoped that staff will become much bolder about implementing change to assessment and how this is managed. This might mean that the institution needs to become more flexible about modularity.


The project should lead to changes in academic practice, and that is a very fundamental thing about thinking about what we’re doing when we give feedback and what we’re doing when we actually set the pieces for assessment.”


I’m very conscious that if we start to think about changing assessment, we’ve got to think about what that means about modularity and how we handle it and are more flexible within the modular system that we’re all wedded to.”


Impact on the student journey

The university’s student employability agenda is a key driver for the project and it is intended that the project will enhance assessment and feedback practices in order to provide graduates with the skills that employers are telling the institution they want. One of the dilemmas the university has is that parents and students think in terms of quantity of feedback, rather than the nature of assessment and feedback and how that influences learning.


The assessment and feedback that we give the student is what ultimately prepares them for student employability.”


We must understand that the modern student is a product of a digital literacy which makes for a very different way of seeing the world.”


Impact on institutional efficiencies and effectiveness

There will be more emphasis on improving effectiveness than efficiency. For instance, the university expends significant time in its processes and systems dealing with student appeals around marks. This is largely due to insufficient clarity about the whole nature of assessment, its purpose and what it means, as well as inadequate feedback. The project should therefore lead to reductions in the negative processes associated with e.g. appeals and a key element of the project is the dialogue and engagement with students to clarify the purpose of assessment and feedback. However, the project will also be looking to improve efficiencies, through use of technologies for e.g. e-marking, e-feedback.


We can no longer assume that we understand what the students are actually thinking; we have to talk to them about it … and we have to sustain that contact and engagement.”


We have both the formal and informal mechanisms for engagement with the Students’ Union and the students very widely established through the university.”


Impact on institutional management and wider engagement

The university’s plan for sustaining improvement start with embedding excellent assessment and feedback as a priority goal in the institution’s Education Strategy. The pilot projects in a number of Schools are taking a root and branch look at their assessment practices and making changes which will give life to the Education Strategy. However, changing staff mind-sets will be absolutely crucial and the project is enabling the institution to promote dialogue and engagement with staff and students in order to achieve this. The strategy is then to use the staff who have changed their practice to influence others.


The university needs to become more sophisticated in its adoption of cost-benefit analyses and be able to blend hard-nosed financial analysis with assessment of benefits that are not easily quantifiable.

The university will use the project as evidence in its next institutional review.


Jisc funded and supported projects are absolutely important in helping us to achieve innovations….. having the Jisc e-AFFECT project is absolutely central to me.