Advancing the Theory and Practice of Self-Determined Learning
by Stewart Hase
It seems that there is a growing and presumably lucrative industry in the buying and selling of university assignments. A student can contact any one of a number of providers and on payment of the appropriate fee receive, in return, a well-written paper or even thesis. Universities are in a bit of a state about this because they can’t do much about it, other than squirm. It’s very difficult to catch the student out even if the style and language used is clearly beyond his or her capability. The assignments are customised and prepared by sophisticated people who know how to write academic papers. These providers are much better at customer service than many other businesses and that includes universities. Thus, plagiarism software is of no use. It is one thing to suspect cheating and another to be able to prove it.
One of the things that universities do very well is teach students how to write assignments. In some faculties or schools, the writing of the assignment is more important than the content. It is possible to fail or be asked to submit for not referencing correctly or for inappropriate style. The obvious assumption is that this is considered an important life skill and that most students want to enter the noble profession of academic. But assignments do have their advantages in an age of mass education although it is mainly utilitarian.
It has never been clear to me how effective assignments are in actually assessing anything very useful, other than the ability to write. It’s a bit like the problem with examinations that have been long known to really test memory and how good a person is at doing exams.
So, given cheating is such a problem, and that there are doubts about the usefulness of assignments, at least in mind, the what to do? The obvious thing is to change the game. Stop using assignments as a form of assessment and do something different.
Formative rather than summative assessment is one of the more obvious solutions. Shift the focus from content to action and use the tutorial as the major means of assessing student performance by carefully designed tasks. This can be based on the flipped classroom, which is gaining traction in all sorts of learning circles. Get learners to do things rather than write about them. Bring back the viva in tutorial sessions.
This might (should) involve getting rid of the mass lecture altogether and spending the time on real learning rather than the transmission of information. Information can be provided on-line if necessary.
The time spent marking piles of assignments can be used engaged with learners in smaller groups-watching them and evaluating their ability to analyse and synthesise. It is a simple matter of shifting the focus of funding from assignment marking to learning.
Formative assessment can be enhanced by using the on-line space that is now part and parcel of university teaching. It is possible to modularise courses, to chunk material and have learners respond to complex tasks on-line. The learner might be asked, as part of the assessment to respond to the answers of others. He or she might have to ‘teach’ a topic to the other learners.
There are lots of other options than having learners write assignments or papers. We need to move past the scribes-in-their-cells model of higher education and shift to a more dynamic learning environment. One that integrates assessment with learning rather than treating them as separate proceeses.
Critically, though, it is time for policy makers and politicians to recognize that universities (and education in general for that matter) should be about learning. It should be more than bums on seats and processing sausages. This is a major mind shift that may not be easy to achieve. But we could at least start the revolution at the coal face.