Plotted progress that will benefit all parties

October 17, 2003

Progress files are benefiting tutors and students. Angela Smallwood describes a growing assessment initiative.

It all started in 1993. That autumn I took on the job of director of studies at the University of Nottingham before its first teaching quality assessment. One of the QA mantras ran something like: "If it isn't written down, it didn't happen." Our courses had just been modularised. Overnight, the old links between staff and tutees were blown away. How were we to recapture that staff overview of each student's experience?

I proposed introducing a set of simple forms to record progress review meetings with students. Students on the staff-student committee requested that students receive copies of everything written about them. The resulting dual-purpose record system was an impure version of records of achievement. It was not private to the student, but it did give them a basis on which to reflect on their studies and plan. For tutors, it streamlined procedures and helped meet quality-assurance demands.

Many students welcome constructive exchanges about their progress with an academic mentor rather than purposeless token meetings with an arbitrarily assigned pastoral tutor they barely know. Other, perhaps more self-confident, students see the exercise as "pointless" or "patronising".

A first-year student, who made the connection with the old records of achievement in school, told us: "We were too young then to make anything of the process; now we are too old."

Some mature students told me that, having experience of full-time jobs, they were positive about the link with career development. The problem was that the prototype recording tool had been designed with only standard 19-year-old students in mind. Another student said the impersonality of large departments was demotivating. Waving his new record he said: "I used to feel that my name was written in water; but now I feel I exist."

Staff reactions have also varied. Departments coming up to subject review have seized on the new tutorial records for immediate quality-assurance benefits. But, under research assessment exercise pressure, others argued against it on workload grounds. Staff worried about student retention or the impact of modularisation on tutors' ability to get to know students and their work generally support the principle of formalising personal tutoring. Other committed personal tutors are offended that the baseline definition of personal tutoring does not meet their standards.

Following our department's success in the TQA, we won funding to work on tutorial records with six other universities from 1996-2000. This was the original Personal and Academic Development for Students in Higher Education (Padshe) project. In late 1998, the pilot involved 1,250 students. By autumn 2000, there were more than 10,000.

The idea of student progress files was moving up the political agenda.

Further national project opportunities came along and the whole thing started moving onto the web. The web is a real boon to keeping progress files. But the focus and the incentive of the personal tutorial meeting is crucial. With students doing preparatory work on the web, personal tutorials can be much richer, with little extra demand on staff time. We also began to link with developments in 16 to 19-year-old education and continuing professional development.

The award of a national teaching fellowship in 2000 enabled me to start another project looking at students' development outside as well as inside the curriculum. The result has just gone live at Nottingham.

There is a great wave of development work around progress files across the UK to meet the government's 2006 target date for implementation. While most of higher education is grappling with internal processes, I am looking outward. My latest project, part of a Joint Information System Committee programme, involves work with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on the technology and pedagogy of a new electronic application form to support widening participation. I've been to France to the first international conference on "ePortfolio". The blurb said: "While the question five years ago was, 'Should every student and employee have an email?', the question today is: 'Should every student and employee be entitled to an ePortfolio?'."

Angela Smallwood is senior lecturer in English studies and director of the Padshe Project, Centre for Teaching Enhancement, University of Nottingham.

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