So Long, and Thanks for All the…

…challenges, suggestions, and insights into many different departments at the university! The last 11 months have been an absolute blast working with the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit as an Online Learning Specialist.

Having started with the 2020 Annual Learning and Teaching Conference, it was wonderful to be able to be a part of the 2021 instance of the same event towards the end of my time in this job. This time round, I even presented (albeit in my role as Lecturer in Theatre and Scenography with TFTS) – you can find the recording of that paper here. Those two events bracket an intense time of learning and teaching for me: alongside my lovely colleagues, I designed, developed, and delivered training sessions on everything from Blackboard to Vevox. I supported staff from all kinds of departments in the switch from in-person to blended learning, to online-only, and back. It is no exaggeration to say I am in awe of the dedication, determination, and ingenuity displayed by colleagues all over the university. I am sure that the resources produced by the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit will continue to support staff as we head towards another academic year potentially full of necessary adaptations. Keep an eye on the Staff Training pages – I for one will be sure to make use of them.

As my Online Learning Specialist colleagues and I move on to other challenges, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all Information Services colleagues, and especially the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit, for being so welcoming and allowing me to gain a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for the many-facetted work of that department. Diolch o galon i gyd!

Demystifying Assessment Criteria

Assessment Criteria serve a number of functions: to render the marking process transparent; to provide clarity about what is being assessed how; to ensure fairness across all submissions; and to provide quality assurance in terms of the subject benchmark statements. While all these reasons are valid and honourable, there are a number of issues at play:

  1. Staff have greater or lesser control of the assessment criteria they are asked to use in marking student work and interpretations of criteria may vary between different staff marking the same assessment.
  2. Assessment criteria are different from standards and the difference between the two must be clearly communicated to students (ie. what is being assessed versus how well a criterion has been met).
  3. Students are often assessment motivated (cf. Worth, 2014) and overemphasis of criteria or overly detailed assessment criteria can lead to a box ticking-type approach.
  4. Conversely, criteria that are too vague or too reliant on tacit subject knowledge can be mystifying and inaccessible to students, especially at the beginning of their degree.

This blog post will not pretend to solve all the issues surrounding assessment criteria but will offer a number of potential strategies staff and departments more widely may employ to demystify assessment criteria, and marking processes, for students. Thus, students become involved in a community of practice, rather than being treated as consumers (cf. Worth, 2014; Molesworth, Scullion & Nixon, 2011). Such activities can roughly be grouped chronologically in terms of happening before, during, or after an assessment.

Before

  • Use assessment criteria to identify goals and outcomes at the beginning of a module, with check-in points in the run up to a deadline.
  • Identify the difficulty in understanding marking criteria. Students are often used to very narrow definitions of success with clear statements that “earn” them points. Combined with a prevalent fear of failure, this can undermine their understanding of the criteria. Additionally, they may feel that they cannot judge their own abilities well in this new context (university). Group discussions not of what criteria mean, but what students understand them to mean, can help identify jargon that requires clarification, allow staff to explain their personal understanding (if they are the marker) and allow students to seek clarification before embarking on an assessment.
  • Highlight the difference between criteria and standards to students (the what and the how well – and how this is distinguished in your discipline).
  • Allocating time to a peer marking exercise using the provided criteria with subsequent group discussion will help students better understand the process.
  • Encouraging students to self mark their work pre-submission using the provided criteria will also help them better understand the process.
  • Using exemplars to illustrate both criteria and standards with concrete examples can be very helpful. This might involve students marking an exemplar in session, with subsequent discussion; annotated exemplars where students gain insights into the marking process; or live feedback sessions where students submit extracts of their work-in-progress that are used (anonymised) to show the whole group the marking process. This then allows for questions and clarification on the judgements a marker makes when working through a submission. Staff may worry that students consider exemplars as “the only right way” to respond to an assessment brief – providing a range of exemplars, especially good ones, can counteract this tendency. Different types of exemplars can be used:
    • ‘Real’ assignments may be best for their inherent complexity (so long as students whose work is used consent to this use and their work is properly anonymised).
    • Constructed exemplars may make assessment qualities more visible.
    • Constructed excerpts (rather than full-length pieces) may be more appropriate when students first learn to look for criteria and how they translate into work as well as allay staff concerns about plagiarism.

During

  • Use the same language: making the links between assessment criteria, subject standards, and university standards clear through using the same terminology in feedback as appears in assessment criteria and subject benchmark statements.
  • Where multiple markers engage with different groups of students on the same assessment, having exemplars to refer to can help ensure clear standards across larger cohorts.

After

  • Refer students back to the assessment criteria and preceding discussions thereof when they engage with feedback and marks.
  • Reiterate the difference between criteria and standards.

Simply providing students with access to assessment criteria is not enough. It is essential that staff identify and clarify the distinction between criteria and standards and demystify the language of assessment criteria by examining tacit subject knowledge staff possess by virtue of experience. Using exemplars and group discussion of these in concretising how criteria and standards translate into a submission will provide students with insights into the marking process that enables them to better understand what they are being asked to do. Lastly, staff should repeatedly encourage students to make use of the availability of assessment criteria while they work on their assessments, which should enable students to feel better prepared and more focussed in their responses.

References:

Molesworth, M., Scullion, R., and Nixon, E. (eds.) (2011) The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer, London: Routledge

Worth, N. (2014) ‘Student-focused Assessment Criteria: Thinking Through Best Practice’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 38:3, pp. 361-372; DOI: 10.1080/03098265.2014.919441

Vevox for Students

In the past month, the university has rolled out Vevox and begun training staff in its use. Vevox combines polls, surveys and Q&As in one interactive software and has integrations with Microsoft Teams and PowerPoint. We are glad to see that staff are already adopting this new software in their teaching and want to encourage students to do the same.
Aberystwyth University’s subscription to Vevox comes with Single Sign-On, meaning students can securely log in with their Aber Uni ID and password. Just as there are multiple ways that staff may use Vevox, so students might find it a useful tool.
For example, students could use Vevox polls and the Q&A function when presenting in seminars or workshops, especially in assessments that feature audience engagement as a criterion. Equally, Vevox offers great opportunities for student research, both in terms of analysing and interrogating survey design (e.g. by using Vevox’s existing sample surveys), and for creating and running their own surveys. Further, Vevox might be used in group work, offering students the opportunity to gather ideas and encourage diverse input from more quiet group members. This is especially useful at the moment, where student groups may include members from different households.
These are just a few examples of how students might use Vevox in their learning and we encourage staff to alert students to the fact that they, too, can access this software for free. Our Vevox guides are here (English and Cymraeg) and How-To videos are here (English and Cymraeg). The Learning and Teaching Unit is at hand alongside the Vevox Team to support any technical queries that may arise, providing student with support that is not available when using free alternatives.

Reflections on the March 2021 Mini Conference

On Thursday, 25th of March, the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit held their second mini conference of the academic year. Focussed on the theme of embedding wellbeing in the curriculum, the conference brought together internal and external speakers on three strands: recognising barriers to student well-being, building resilience in students, and encouraging students to flourish.

The conference boasted a range of speakers from across Aberystwyth University, as well as an external speaker from Coleg Cambria. Topics ranged from the ongoing work on wellbeing by the Student Support team, wellbeing in foundation year programmes, and building student resilience to reframing of mistakes as a learning opportunity, and personalising approaches to engaging with students and their work. Our two keynote speakers, Frederica Roberts and Kate Lister focussed on positive education and online communities respectively. In the spirit of the conference, the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit also organised two activities during the morning and afternoon breaks: desk yoga and a guided meditation with local yoga teacher Regina Hellmich, which several delegates identified as a conference highlight. The day concluded with a plenary session in which everyone was encouraged to reflect on their insights and identify concrete applications of best practice going forward.

If you missed the mini conference or could only attend parts of it, you can now access recordings of most presentations here. Simply log in with your Aberystwyth ID and password. In addition, we strongly encourage you to sign up to our next Academy Forum on the 20th of April, entitled “How can I embed wellbeing into the curriculum?” – we look forward to seeing you there.

How to make asynchronous recordings engaging and interactive

Pre-recorded asynchronous content has become a key factor in delivering courses and enabling the best learning experience for students at Aberystwyth University. There are several strategies that lecturers can use to make these recordings both engaging and interactive.

The benefits of asynchronous pre-recorded lectures are manifold, and most students – as the so-called YouTube generation – know this mode of learning extremely well (Scagnoli, Choo & Tian, 2019). Benefits include that students control their engagement with the content and value the convenience and flexibility that asynchronous recordings provide them with, in particular regarding the pace of their learning, and the repeatability of their engagement (Dale & Pymm, 2009; Ramlogan et al., 2014; Scagnoli, Choo & Tian, 2019). It is therefore essential that staff outline what is expected of students in terms of engaging with learning materials, both in pre-recorded videos and in-person sessions.

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Advice on managing face-to-face and HyFlex teaching successfully

Advice on managing face-to-face teaching successfully:
All staff should strive to maximise the amount of time that students are working back to back or side to side, wherever possible. However, where this is not possible, students may turn to one another, for example for seminar discussion, provided other mitigating practices remain in place (ventilation, masks, social distancing).

A short (10 minute) discussion among students can then be opened up by using interactive technologies such as polling software to allow students to pool their knowledge and begin a plenary discussion, for which all students will face forward again. The majority of in-person sessions should take place with students positioned back to back or side to side.

Please note:
• Any activities in which students face each other should be in very small groups (pairs or groups of three) to minimise the overall volume and ensure everyone can contribute.
• Reminding students of good conversational etiquette, in which people take turns to speak, is essential to minimising the volume of conversations, and thus the projection of aerosol droplets.
• In rooms with fixed and/or tiered seating, such discussion may prove difficult, as students are not permitted to change seats.
• In rooms with mobile seating, the layout of the room must not be changed, and staff must ensure that students maintain social distancing at all times when turning to others.

Advice on managing HyFlex teaching successfully:
• Set expectations clearly: what can student joining remotely expect? Will they be in an observer role? Will they be active participants? What are the limits of remote participation?
• Enable interactive tasks that bring remote and in situ students together, e.g. interactive polls that all can access synchronously
• If numbers are very uneven and the majority of students is present in one mode (e.g. only one student is joining remotely from quarantine), invite in situ students to the online session using their own devices, to enable peer discussion

The Exemplary Course Award – Streamlined Application Process

Annually, the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit run the Exemplary Course Award, which recognises the very best practice in using Blackboard. This blog post details changes we have made to the process, when dedicated training sessions will be run, how and why to apply, and when the deadline for applications is.
To get an idea of what an ECA-winning module might look like, you can view last year’s winners’ module walk-throughs here (Lara Kipp, in English only, and Rhianedd Jewell, in Welsh and English).

Recognising the particular challenges of this academic year, we have put our heads together to streamline the process in the hopes that even more applicants submit their modules for consideration. The process is still rigorous and detailed, but we have made some key changes to encourage as wide a range of applications as possible.

What has changed?
• You can now submit in two different formats: either a written narrative of up to 500 words, or a Panopto recording up to 4 minutes in length.
• We have streamlined the form in such a way that applicants only need to tick whether a criterion is fulfilled or not – no need to agonise over how many points to award yourself.
• We have integrated the criteria weighting into the form, meaning applicants do not need to calculate scores anymore.

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Continued Professional Development – What’s on Offer?

The Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit offers a number of sessions for Continued Professional Development (CPD) covering a range of topics. We offer sessions in both English and Welsh. Welsh-language sessions will appear in Welsh on the staff training website.
In this blog post, I will detail the range of sessions on offer for you between now and January, who to contact to find out more about them, and how to book a place for a session.
Here is what’s on offer in the coming months:

November:

  • Sessions aimed at Graduate Teaching Assistants, both on Developing your Teaching Practice and on Using MS Teams, Teaching Room Equipment & Synchronous Delivery (English and Welsh language sessions available)
  • A session on Facilitating Intrinsic Motivation in Students – the Self Determination Theory Perspective (English language only)
  • Sessions on E-Learning Essentials: Introductions to Blackboard, TurnitIn, and Panopto (the former in English, the latter two in Welsh)
  • Sessions on Creating Accessible Learning Materials, Learning Environments, and Techniques for Teaching Scientific Subjects as well as Using Jisc Online Surveys (all English language)
  • Two Academy forums on Why and How to Help Students to Reflect on Their Learning, and on Motivation Strategies for Online Learning Engagement

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Vocal Warm Ups and Techniques for Recording at Home

Speaking into the void of your computer for pre-recorded materials is hard. Without an audience to interact with, it is difficult to know whether the delivery of materials is clear and engaging. On top of that, we use our voices very differently depending on the circumstance we speak in – recording in your office, or at home, your use of voice when recording will differ from your normal in-person delivery. Here are a few tips aimed at helping you make your pre-recorded vignettes as engaging as your live sessions:

1. Overenunciate – this will help automatic captions and emphasise individual words, making it easier to understand and follow what you are saying
2. Vary speed of delivery – take your time with the things that need it, but beware of setting into too regular a rhythm. Changes in speed will refocus your listeners’ attention onto what you are saying.
3. Use different parts of your vocal range – we’re not suggesting you act out different characters, but consciously avoid monotone: you know what you are talking about, but your students may encounter it for the first time. Monotone makes it seem boring and unimportant, when it really isn’t.

The above are ways of imitating the variances that happen in face-to-face conversations, and live events where you feed off your audience’s reactions and engagement. No one asks that you retrain as a YouTuber, but some vocal techniques used in videos like that can become useful tools for making pre-recorded materials more engaging. It takes a lot of energy and focus to speak into nothing but your own computer. The above are simple but effective linguistic and vocal tricks that help you speak engagingly to an imaginary audience.

Here’s a video to help you.

Two guides: a Video Recording Checklist and Video Recording Tips

As more and more materials are made available online, including pre-recorded lectures, it is easy to become overwhelmed: in addition to adapting teaching materials for this different type of delivery and streamlining information into shorter instalments, the practical aspects of recording videos for teaching can be daunting. But fear not! The Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit has created two guides, a Video Recording Checklist and Video Recording Tips.
It is important to remember that no one expects a perfect greenscreen or Minority Report– style, interactive multi-stream extravaganza. If you follow the checklist, you will ensure your videos will be of a consistently solid standard, without much hassle. The tips offer you extra help with improving your video recording skills.
If you have any further questions, want additional guidance, or seek clarifications, remember that the LTEU is only an email away, at lteu@aber.ac.uk and elearning@aber.ac.uk.