Students get personal

May 23, 2003

With the introduction of personal-development planning looming, Jonathan Baldwin sees learning agreements as the way forward

When a colleague cornered me about the increase in the number of students on her fashion course, I regretted having gone to get a coffee. The kitchen is a notorious black spot for despondency. “I can’t teach this many students,” she moaned, “There’s not enough room to make garments.” “They could always make baby clothes,” I quipped. She was not amused.

This raised an important point: why do we believe the breadth of skills and knowledge we want our students to demonstrate can only be assessed in fixed ways? Why do we treat resources, teaching and assessment as constants and yet treat students as variables?

If courses with the learning outcome “students will demonstrate an understanding of the workings of a typical car engine” have students building an engine, this is a mechanical interpretation of assessing “understanding”. A student with a thorough theoretical knowledge of how engines work, but without the technical skills to build one, would fail. But that same “understanding” outcome could be assessed in other ways: an illustrated essay, problem-solving, verbal reasoning, a storyboard, a presentation.

What would happen if students chose how they wanted to be assessed? There are clear benefits to students designing and managing their learning. It would raise self-esteem and the discussion and negotiation would make a change from being told what to do, when to do it and how they’ve done based on obscure criteria.

The imminent introduction of personal development planning (PDP) in universities and colleges is an opportunity to refocus learning while improving motivation and results. PDP is a tool for encouraging independence as students approach graduation. It also allows integration of extracurricular activities, including part-time work, into their personal plan or portfolio. Student learning agreements are one way of implementing PDP. They are an opportunity to customise learning and assessment without compromising standards. The same learning outcomes and assessment criteria form the starting point of all agreements. They should be core to the design and delivery of the module and not an add-on. Sessions should reinforce the five-step cycle of planning, negotiating, implementing, demonstrating and reflecting.

When I first used learning agreements three years ago, my first-year graphic design students began by analysing case studies of “briefs” from advertising and architectural firms to show how identical guidelines can lead to unique results. They discussed the module’s learning outcomes in pairs to arrive at a shared understanding of what they meant and the criteria for success. Pairs then joined up to discuss conclusions. After that, fours became eights and a plenary allowed us to reach a whole-group understanding.

The agreement was published as a booklet, with space for students to write down their understanding of each outcome and how they felt they could best demonstrate it against the agreed criteria. This informed the outline of their proposal, which would be refined through negotiation with peers and tutors. Space was provided for journal entries, action plans and notes.

Learning groups met throughout the module. The same member of staff was responsible for each group throughout. This prevented contradictions and re-explanations of ideas and advice. The agreement meant discussion focused on the learning rather than the presentation or technical aspects of assessment. Staff observed, rather than led, meetings - some of which were tutorless. The result was outstanding: student motivation and attendance was high and assessment went smoothly. The agreed criteria helped improve objectivity and prevent tutors from marking down students for not following often-contradictory advice. Staff’s in-depth knowledge of assignments sped up the process, while students engaged in self and peer-assessment that was virtually identical to ours. There was a significant fall in demand for ad hoc one-to-one time, which was usually for low-level technical help or to clarify contradictions in advice. Students supported each other.

I’ve used components of the student-learning agreement ever since on different modules and at another university. Some institutions are more sceptical than others about student control over their learning and assessment. This makes it important to adapt the techniques to the situation depending on the module, the students and university regulation and culture. I still hear from my harassed fashion colleague who, under duress, is bravely maintaining “standards” and traditions, despite students not attending and dropping out. She never did allow them to make baby clothes, which was a shame, as it might have eased the stress.

Jonathan Baldwin is an academic developer for the art, design and communication subject centre, part of the Learning and Teaching Support Network, based at the University of Brighton.

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