Designing Anxiety-Free Assessments

During last week’s Mini-Fest we run a session entitled ‘Designing Anxiety-Free Assessments’. The session was based on A review of the literature concerning anxiety for educational assessments produced by Ofqual which outlines links between assessment anxiety, students’ performance, and mental health. It also offers possible assessment anxiety interventions which can be applied to both assessment design as well as its implementation.

Based on the review as well as discussions from the session we prepared a list of simple steps you can take to make assessments less anxiety-provoking for your students:

  1. Replace fear appeals with positive encouragement.

Fear appeals, messages emphasising the importance of upcoming assessments, have been shown to contribute to higher levels of test anxiety, lower-class engagement and lower task performance (Putwain & Best, 2011; Putwain, Nakhla, Liversidge, Nicholson, Porter & Reece, 2017; Putwain & Symes, 2014). Instead of motivating students using fear appeals, try rephrasing your messaging into positive encouragement.

  • Help students set achievable goals.

In addition to providing students with information about how their final performance or paper should look like, it is worth adding some information on what steps they need to take to get there. Breaking assessments down into stages and suggesting approximately how much time they should spend on each part can be helpful to students, particularly those not experienced in managing university assessments.

  • Facilitate a positive learning environment.

As described in the review ‘positive learning environments can include: designing lessons that focus and building upon students’ strengths and abilities rather than identifying weaknesses; giving positive and accurate feedback; encouraging cooperative rather than competitive peer relationships; and encouraging students to be intrinsically motivated to study, rather than being coercive or focusing on the instrumentality of assessment outcomes(Jennings & Greenberg, 2009 as cited in Ofqual, 2020). How can you foster these elements in your classroom?

  • Modify the mode of assessment (if possible!).

Several specific assessment-design factors impact how anxiety-inducing they are. Making small adjustments to the assessment mode can make a difference to your students:

  • Instrumentality (how much impact the assessment appears to have on students’ overall grade): Breaking down or spreading out complex and heavily weighted assessments into smaller chunks will help students with managing their time better and create less pressure on doing well.
  • Complexity (how complicated the assessment seems to be): is there anything in the assessment design that could be simplified?
  • Evaluation (whether their performance will be evaluated by others): where possible consider minimising the impact of the social evaluative aspect of assessments by limiting the audience size or allowing students to submit a pre-recorded presentation.
  • Timing (whether their performance is timed): this one is applicable particularly in terms of exams which usually have strict time limits. It’s worth considering whether timed exams are the best way of measuring student progression on the learning outcome or whether there is an alternative assessment design you could use.
  • Help students feel prepared.

Increasing feelings of preparedness can also help in reducing assessment anxiety. Some of the things you can do to help your students feel more prepared are:

  • making assessment clear, detailed and accessible clear;
  • ​tying assessments clearly and obviously to learning outcomes;
  • linking skills they learnt throughout the module to those helping them in assessments;
  • communicating expectations (e.g. how much time they should spend on an assessment) clearly and repeatedly.

Finally, perhaps the most effective way of making students feel more prepared and help them get used to being assessed are mock exams and other formative assessments (Ergene, 2011).

  • Provide students with information about assessment anxiety & how to manage it.

Simply providing students with information about assessment anxiety being common among students and giving them links to some resources available to them (see below) can be helpful.

Resources:

Supporting your Learning module available to all student via Blackboard offers all essential information on assessments including a short section on tackling assessment anxiety.

Quick Guide to Student Success is a good starting point for helping students to build academic skills such as managing their time, effective study strategies and the ability to motivate themselves.

AberSkills pages (accessible also via Blackboard) offer students support on various essential skills including academic writing, referencing or employability.

Student Well-being Resources provide students with various resources which can help them in building coping strategies.

Although it may not be possible to design assessments that are fully anxiety-free, taking some of these steps can have a positive impact on students’ performance and wellbeing.

What is a well-designed Blackboard module? – Student Learning Ambassadors Project

Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit (LTEU) is looking for a number of Student Learning Ambassadors to work on a ‘What is a well-designed Blackboard module?’ project. Issues with consistency and navigation of Blackboard modules are frequently raised in the feedback received from students (e.g., via the Information User Survey or the JISC Digital Insights survey). We would like to gather a small community of students who, through various User Experience methods, will work on this question. As part of this role, students will participate in focus groups, build their own Blackboard module and work collaboratively to report on the findings.

We are looking to recruit 8 students. This project will run between 05th and 17th of July 2021. Depends on the group, Ambassadors will be required to commit approximately 13 hours of work either in the first or in the second week of the project.

Please consider encouraging your students to apply for this role via the AberWorks  portal where more information is available. The closing date is 21st of June.

Call for Case Studies – Blackboard Interactive Tools

We are looking for staff who would like to share their experiences of using Blackboard interactive features, e.g. blogs, journals, wikis, tests, discussion boards. We welcome case studies in any format, e.g. short text, a video, voice memo. These case studies would be included on our blog and used in future training sessions. Please sent your case studies to lteu@aber.ac.uk 

To learn more about different interactive Blackboard features:

Blogs & journals:

Interactive Blackboard Tools Series – Journals and Blogs (Part 1)

Blackboard Tools for Group Work (Blogpost 2): Blogs

Wikis:

Blackboard Tools for Group Work (Blogpost 3): Wikis

Tests:

Blackboard Tests – Creating Online Assessment Activities for your Students

Discussion boards:

Blackboard Tools for Group Work (Blogpost 4): Discussions

Final Academy Forum session of the year

We would like to invite you to the final Academy Forum session of the year taking place on 24th of May.  

This session will be an opportunity for us to look back on this year’s Academy Forum programme, designed specifically to support staff in teaching in different ways in a response to the pandemic and reflect on what we can take forward.  

Topics we covered this year were: 

  • Creating a Learning and Teaching Community 
  • Creating Podcasts in Panopto 
  • Why and how to help students reflect on their learning 
  • Motivation Strategies for Online Learning Engagement 
  • How can I plan online and in-person activities? 
  • How can I make my teaching more inclusive? 
  • How can I embed wellbeing into the curriculum? 
  • Preparing students for assessments 

We hope that you will be able to join us.  

Book on the session 

Can Aberystwyth University become a Positive University?

Frederika Roberts, our keynote speaker at the mini-conference on Embedding Well-being in the Curriculum concluded her presentation by asking ‘Can Aberystwyth University become a Positive University?’ (to watch Frederika’s talk please visit the mini-conference website).

The idea of a positive university is one that focuses on ‘the development of educational environments that enable the learner to engage in established curricula in addition to knowledge and skills to develop their own and others’ wellbeing’ (Oades, Robinson, Green, & Spence, 2011). This definition has been proposed by the authors of Towards a positive university article published in 2011 which includes a useful framework for building Positive Universities based on the PERMA model (Seligman, 2011). Seligman’s PERMA is among the most well-known well-being theories which distinguish five key aspects of well-being:

PERMA model: P - positive emotions, E- engagement, R - Relationships, M- meaning, A- accomplishment

Source: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/learn

Although much progress has been done on embedding well-being in the curriculum, not many institutions, especially in the higher education sector, implemented a whole-institutional approach to well-being (Oades et al., 2011). The first Positive University in the world was Tecmilenio University, a private institution in Mexico, established in 2002. Following their lead, in 2017, the University of Buckingham became the first Positive University in Europe.

What would have to change for Aberystwyth University to become a Positive University?

The Positive University status is achieved by implementing the well-being in institutional policies and procedures, but also through an individual commitment to the values of positive education. Although Oades and colleagues (2011) mention the importance of senior leadership, they also offer a range of simple activities that are consistent with the ethos of positive education and that could be implemented by teaching and professional staff as well as students (see Table 1. p. 434). Following the recent mini-conference, we would like to call all staff to take an active stand towards their well-being and the well-being of their students and colleagues.

To find examples of how you can embed well-being in your teaching please refer to the Towards a positive university article, recordings from the conference as well as the Wellbeing in the curriculum factsheet created by Samantha Glennie, the Student Wellbeing Service Manager. We would also like to encourage you to share the following resources with your students:

Supporting your Learning Blackboard module

[:en]At the beginning of this academic year, various departments across the University contributed to creating Supporting your Learning web pages. Although gathering all essential information in one place has been useful, we were looking for a way to present it in a more interactive and accessible format.

We created the Supporting your Learning organisation on Blackboard which includes all information from the web pages with some additional resources such as the Quick Guide to Student Success as well as practice submission points.

Supporting your Learning module has a menu on the left hand side that you can navigate the different pages from

We conducted several ‘Helping Students to Make Most of Online Learning’ training sessions with Peer Guides, Residential Assistants, Student Representatives and Student Support staff showing them the Supporting your Learning organisation. We received positive feedback and made changes based on their comments. We have also asked for feedback from the Directors of Learning and Teaching.

All students and staff can find the Supporting your Learning organisation under ‘My Organisation’ tab.

Supporting your Learning module is located under My Organisations on BB

We hope that it will support them in findings essential information in a more efficient way as well as enhance various induction processes. We would greatly appreciate if you could share this resource with all students and staff in your departments and utilise it where appropriate.

What else could we do to support student learning? (according to students themselves!)

We have recently had an opportunity to deliver ‘Make the most of your online learning’ sessions to Peer Guides, Student Representatives as well as Residential Assistants. These sessions focused mainly on introducing students to resources which are available to them: Supporting your Learning module on Blackboard (which will shortly be rolled out to all students); and the Quick Guide to Student Success.

We have also taken these opportunities to ask students: ‘What else can we do to support your learning?’. We would like to share with you some of the feedback we received along with suggestions on how these could be addressed:

Assignment extensions 

Although this is not something that can be resolved by teaching staff, it may be worth including a link to the Course Extensions information along with other assessment related information.

Clear structure

Some students expressed difficulties in navigating their workload related to online learning and a need for a clearer structure on how and when the content will be released to them. Therefore, we would like to encourage staff to include a short table with content release dates (it can be included in Module Information) and sticking to dates and times of seminar and live sessions which have been timetabled.

A table showing dates on each content being released on Blackboard

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Reflections from Academy Forum: How can I make my teaching more inclusive?

What does insivity mean to you wordcloud

Last week’s Academy Forum on inclusivity was one of the best-attended sessions this year. It was great to see so much interest and commitment in developing more inclusive teaching. This session was delivered in partnership with Student Support Services. Accessibility Advisor Nicky Cashman provided staff with information on demographics at AU as well as support available to students.  

The session started from a broad question of ‘what does inclusivity means to you’ (see the word cloud we created above). After Nicky’s introduction, we moved onto a scenario-based activity. Each group was given one scenario to work with. Every few minutes each group received and an additional piece of information providing them with a broader perspective of the situation.

The scenarios can be found at the bottom of the post.

The activity was followed by a whole-group discussion. Staff talked about a ‘duty of care’ towards their students and the extent to which they are expected and should be monitoring their students. We also talked about the balance between taking care of individual students and the needs of the entire cohort. The group looking at scenario one rightly pointed out that more inclusive practice would be to ensure that students are pre-assigned to groups, to avoid situations when someone is excluded. A discussion on when alternative assessments are appropriate and where additional support in completing existing assessments would be more suitable. Finally, the importance of establishing trust with students as well as checking in with students who may show early signs of difficulties was discussed.

We are very grateful to Nicky and all staff who attended and contributed to this session.

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External Speakers: Mini-Conference: Embedding Well-being in the Curriculum

Mini-conference: Embedding Well-being in the Curriculum

As announced last week, on Thursday 25th March, the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit will be hosting second Mini-Conference this academic year. The theme will be ‘Embedding Well-being in the Curriculum’, where will explore the links between mental well-being and learning and how this could help to maximise success for both students and staff.

We are pleased to announce that two excellent external speakers accepted our invitations to present during the conference:

Flourishing at Aberystwyth – Putting Positive Education into Practice

Positive Education is the intertwining of educating for academic outcomes and for well-being and character development in order to enable the learner to flourish. Embarking on a course of academic study, whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level, full- or part-time, is a major life event that can impact on mental health and well-being. The current academic year has been unlike any other and a determined focus on well-being for students and staff – teaching and non-teaching – is more important than ever.

In this highly interactive keynote, participants will learn about key elements of positive psychology in the context of higher education, including:

  • The importance of positive relationships
  • The use of character strengths in teaching, feedback and staff development
  • How time perspectives may influence motivation

Aberystwyth University staff attending this session will have the opportunity to explore how their everyday practices can support their students’, colleagues’ and own well-being. The session will include elements of reflection, discussion, and practising activities that support well-being. Whilst the focus will primarily be on supporting student well-being, this is best achieved when staff are well.

The session will therefore also provide participants with the opportunity to develop their own well-being strategies and to consider how the University’s systems and procedures can underpin a culture of well-being.

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Tasks function in Blackboard – easy way to allow students to track their progress!

We have been recently approached by a member of staff seeking advice on the use of checklists in Blackboard. They brought our attention to a useful tool called Tasks. We have previously blogged about ways of tracking student progress in Blackboard by using the review and adaptive release, functionalities allowing you to create interactive, learning ‘paths’ for students in your module.

The Tasks function, which can be found on the in Course Tools on the Course Management panel allows you to create Course Tasks, set their priority, due date and track number of students who started, are in progress or completed the tasks.

A screenshot showing where you can find the Tasks tool under the course managementA screenshot showing the Tasks tool interface

Once you’ve created your course tasks you can share the Tasks tool with students in two ways. You can either make Tasks visible to students in the Tools tab on your module course:

a screenshot showing where you can find Tasks on the course menu

Or add a link to Tasks anywhere in your course (Tools > More Tools). Our suggestion would be to locate it in Module Information.

a screenshot showing where you can find Tasks under tools

When introducing Tasks to your student make sure you set clear expectations:

  • How often should students be checking for new tasks?
  • How often will you be checking for progress?
  • What is the purpose of using this tool? Be transparent on how closely will you be monitoring their progress.

As mentioned, this will allow you to see how students engage with the activities in your modules, but also give students themselves to track their own progress and stay on top of their workload. Students can simply view their tasks and set them to not started, in progress or complete by clicking on the grey drop down arrow.

a screenshot showing how students can change the status of the task

As always, we encourage you to test this functionality yourself in your practice modules (you can find it under My Organisation tabs) and contact us with any queries: lteu@aber.ac.uk