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Real-world learning application and the role of authentic assessment

In my observation, despite the changes in education delivery over the past 2 years, something that has often remained quite stagnant is the focus on assessment as measuring hard knowledge rather than the skills to utilise said knowledge. Assessment processes are still very traditional, carried out in the form of exams, tests, quizzes and essays, and even coursework hasn’t shifted a whole lot in response to the pandemic. 

Calls have intensified for a rethink in how education approaches the measurement of learning objectives, in order to set students up for success in a modern world. For instance, we’re seeing increasing demand from industry for institutions to produce work-ready, digitally literate graduates that can hit the ground running. 

Advocates of authentic assessment make the case that by addressing the oftentimes abstract nature of assessments, we can help students develop applied knowledge that mimics real-world situations they will encounter. Granted, this is not necessarily easy, and lends itself more readily to certain disciplines than others. The rise in industry collaborations within courses is a positive step to making both assessment and coursework more relevant to students, but can we go even further than this? Consider the increasing emphasis on cultivating ‘soft skills’ for the future of work - communication, collaboration, teamwork - which, if anything, should be renamed as ‘critical skills’. They underpin success in the workplace, yet there are limited mechanisms at a university level to formally cover them. We see elements in group-based coursework and assessment, but perhaps there is scope to pursue this largely untapped set of skills more directly.      

Think about common workplace tasks - giving a presentation, leading/facilitating a meeting, picking up the phone in a professional manner, writing a professional email, etc. At face value, these all seem simple to pick up, but they do involve a learning curve when students transition from schooling to work. For example, how do we prepare their communication skills beyond essays or even oral reports? Is there a benefit to having pieces of assessment that partially replicate what we do everyday at most workplaces? Equipping students with such practical, work-ready skills may also go a long way in boosting engagement rates for students preoccupied with the fastest path to paid work and refocus them on the academic journey. 

To incorporate lessons such as these, a dialogue is needed across an institution on how coursework can be designed to ensure that those skills are developed, and then, how assessment can evaluate how they are performing in those areas. I believe it’s important food for thought as institutions work to maintain relevance and build out new digital paradigms. 

Consideration of equity and wellbeing

Many institutions in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong have already begun a digital transformation, but we must remember that a solid footing for hybrid learning goes beyond technology infrastructure. 

It’s no surprise that educators have reported doing more emotional labour during the pandemic. Remote learning has further exposed issues of access, equity, and mental health affecting students and their academic outcomes. As institutions vow to do more to address student wellbeing and level the playing field in academic performance, it’s becoming clear that responsibility goes beyond purely academic help, to a form of pastoral care. Indeed, a group of academics recently penned a piece in The Conversation, suggesting that “student-centred decision-making will be vital in determining how care can be provided as an integral part of our teaching.” 

At the height of the pandemic, frequent concessions were made to accommodate students facing hardship or learning inequities. Moving forward, how can institutions develop a system whereby the onus is not squarely on students to self-report their learning struggles and apply for special consideration, but rather, anticipates at-risk students where possible and makes the necessary allowances? The task ahead for institutions is to evaluate their readiness to roll out inclusive learning strategies in a permanent, ongoing capacity. Among the questions deserving attention: can we easily find students at risk? Are institutions looking at indicators of struggles? Are we ensuring students are supported and have access to the tools they need to cope? The beauty of hybrid learning modalities is that they allow for flexibility in the delivery of class activities, enabling students to study at their own pace, in their own time. Sure, unbridled use of technology can be counterproductive to student workflows, but it’s up to institutions to set appropriate boundaries when it comes to synchronous and asynchronous learning. Once issues of internet-related access are addressed, technology can help the ideals of equitable learning come to fruition. And contrary to fears that student visibility is jeopardised in online learning, it offers a wealth of learning analytics and feedback loops to help keep better track of student progress.  

Student wellbeing also cuts to the heart of academic integrity by influencing a student’s vulnerability or risk in turning to cheating to pass a course. In the previously mentioned Student Voice Survey, 52% of students attributed ‘heavy or unrealistic course workloads’ as the reason for breaching academic integrity, meaning alleviating students’ actual or perceived pressure is a worthy consideration for institutions in how they tackle both student wellbeing and academic integrity. 

Pulling it all together

The pandemic experience will continue to have a transformative effect on education. Beginning with what some called a ‘rushed digital revolution’, there are pressures on higher education institutions to make strategic, long-term decisions more quickly than they’ve done in the past. Educators on the frontline have had to adjust pedagogy on the fly, and education leaders and administrators have scrambled to provide the infrastructure teaching staff and students need. Now is the time to consolidate these efforts and embrace the strengths of online learning more purposefully, though strategic planning.  

Key strategic planning considerations:

  • Ensuring a digital pedagogy strategy so the design of courses and assessment is done with hybrid/digital delivery in mind
  • Dedicated support for both staff and students throughout the journey of transformation
  • Consulting the diversity of the student body to identify and fulfill their needs
  • Provision of hard technology and soft technology to remove obstacles to participating online
  • Robust, ongoing staff training and professional development
  • Defined expectations of technology’s acceptable use, from an academic integrity perspective  

Earlier, I made reference to the relationship between educators’ digital skill level and student engagement, and wish to reinforce that training teaching staff to be familiar and comfortable with digital methods is crucial to a successful hybrid learning framework. Equipping them with tools and resources as part of robust digital infrastructure is a crucial piece in the puzzle, which also applies to the student body in delivering equitable opportunities for hybrid learning. 

How universities can overcome the hurdles to access is an ongoing issue I expect to see them tackle more proactively in coming months and years. This expanded scope ought to consider hard technology access (such as devices), provisions around internet/wifi from remote locations, and infusion of virtual and on-campus spaces, allowing students to work quietly if life at home is not allowing them to do so. It’s safe to predict that meeting student enrolment targets will be increasingly influenced by universities’ offering of a flexible, inclusive learning experience.   

When considering a blueprint for cultivating academic integrity in any learning environment, it should begin with a clear integrity policy that is put front and centre, along with efforts to ensure student understanding. Maintaining a dialogue with the student body at every stage of their academic career and not just at the start of university, is another crucial element. Furthermore, discussing both the short and long-term pitfalls of academic misconduct with students early and continuously, is highly effective in making academic policy personally relevant and building students’ lifelong values. Finally, defining what technology aids are permissible and in what circumstances amidst the growth in machine learning and AI, will ensure students’ use of technology is not outpacing or outsmarting institutional policy.

Missed part 1 of this blog? Check it out to hear Anna’s perspectives on the role of academic integrity and student engagement as it relates to a hybrid learning framework.

Read Part 1 of this blog