Student involvement in the assessment process in a first year university geography module : influencing their approach to learning.
The assessment procedures utilised in first year Geography modules at the University of Natal Durban were critically reviewed. This revealed a rather narrow approach with an emphasis on summative assessment, limited feedback and a hidden assessment agenda with no student involvement. It was recognised that this traditional approach encouraged a surface approach to learning. In order to broaden the range of assessment procedures available to the students and to improve upon the assessment practice in general, peer and self-assessment exercises were incorporated into a first year module (Environmental Geography I) during this study. It was felt that by participating in peer and self-review exercises, students' self-reflective skills could be developed in order to equip them to become life-long learners. The main aim of the study was to integrate assessment with learning and to determine whether active involvement in the assessment process provided insight into the process and positively influenced students' motivation, attitude and approach to learning. The study, which was conducted over a two-year period using an action research approach, revolved mainly around an essay test students wrote a few weeks into the module. During tutorials prior to the test students were introduced to the skill of essay writing and the concept of criteria by which essays could be assessed. After the test, using a criteria sheet and model answer, students were expected to mark (Le. provide both written feedback as well as a grade) both an essay of an anonymous ' peer' as well as their own test essay. The lecturer subsequently marked the test as well as the actual assessment done by the students. Quantitative comparisons of student-awarded grades and lecturer-awarded grades, as well as a qualitative analysis of student and lecturer feedback during the process, and comments from the evaluations, revealed some general trends from both iterations: • Students showed increased insight into the process of self-assessment with practice. • Good students tended to under-estimate, poor students over-estimate grades. • Students were critical when marking an anonymous peer. • Students tended to be less critical when marking themselves. • Students battled with understanding/implementing certain criteria. • Students found it hard to separate out content from structure and style in an essay. • Students generally saw credit and value in the process of self-assessment. • Students were generally positive about the process of self-assessment • Students were rely-ctant to engage in the process of self-assessment on a more regular basis • Students felt the feedback comments from the lecturer on the self-assessment were the most valuable learning exercise. A large part of the success of the study was that, through integrating assessment in the learning process, students were able to be more critical of their own work. This in turn should pave the way for them being able to work in more self-reflective and independent ways in the future. Furthermore, the study served to open up dialogue with students with respect to our teaching and their learning. By participating in the peer and self-review process they became more aware of the "hidden" aspects of the curriculum. Students appear to have acquired an awareness of the value of criteria in assessment and were able to apply them to some degree in their own context. In general, students felt they had a beneficial experience in peer and self-assessment. The study highlighted a number of issues that need addressing. Firstly, there was a large gap between lecturer expectations in a written answer and what the students felt was acceptable. In particular, students had problems with being able to discriminate and internalise certain criteria such as relevance of information' and in general resorted to what has been tenned the 'shotgun ' approach when providing answers. It is recognised that interpretation of such gaps in understanding have social, cultural and political contexts. Secondly. the actual awarding of grades was an intimidating process for many students and should be done in a less threatening way in the future. Thirdly from a personal point of view, it is recognised that it requires not only a high level of critical reflection but also active engagement and discipline to make necessary changes in an action research process. A conceptual framework in which traditional and educational forms of assessment are represented as two extremes of a continuum of student-lecturer involvement, is presented. This helps to locate the present study and provides direction for future assessment studies in which student learning is the central focus.