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UCL Connected Curriculum Fellows



Why are throughlines in a programme important? Help from a string quartet

By utnvgjh, on 9 January 2017

Learning can be horizontal (accumulating new knowledge and skills in a discipline) or vertical where there is a clear learning journey throughout a programme (progressing knowledge and/or disciplinary skills over time) – or of course both.
The vertical can easily get lost in modular programmes – it may be there but do students know what their overall journey is and whether or not that they are progressing? Maybe not particularly in research based education where the skills being developed can be a bit nebulous. It’s a bit like going for a walk without a destination in mind or even a map.

How playing in a string quartet helped me


The following anecdote illustrates why I became interested in making the learning journey or learning gain more obvious to students and assessing student progress as well as product.

I play in an amateur string quartet and we gathered one evening to view a video recording of our recent charity concert. My three fellow string players’ viewing of the video was accompanied by the harshest of criticism and cries of dismay at our performance. One player even suggested that perhaps we should give up playing altogether. I pointed out that they were comparing our performance to that of professional musicians and that such comparison is not helpful – we were not aiming to compete with other quartets. I reminded them that when we first started playing together two years ago we played as four separate voices and not as an ensemble, but the video recording demonstrated that we were now listening to each other and so there was evidence of how much we had improved. We would not have been able give a credible concert performance at all two years ago and this performance was our personal best. Switching from a judgment based on a competitive standard to an assessment of our progress enabled us to feel much more proud of our performance and continue playing together rather than disband. This incident demonstrated to me very starkly a focus on progress over time rather than only outcomes can have huge motivational benefits.

I am looking at how to apply progress monitoring or ipsative assessment to programmes in higher education.

How I plan to research throughlines of research and assessment

So now I am exploring different methods of setting up explicit throughlines of research and assessment in programmes. For these throughlines to be useful I propose that the throughline activity will be:
• Coherent. Consistent disciplinary and generic skills or attributes are assessed across the programme.
• Recorded. Students and staff have good access to past assessments so these are captured. Digital technologies make this a realistic possibility.
• Motivating. Students are aware of progression so they can be motivated.
• Identifying problems early. Students who are not progressing are managed early.
• Supported. Students are supported in the throughline of study e.g. through self or peer review and/or tutor feedback.

I plan to interview staff from different programmes with different kinds of throughline to explore how far these conditions are met in each case. I plan to look at examples such as:

• Student self-monitoring of professional enquiry skills e.g. MBA in Higher Education Management
• Capstone assessment that brings together work from several modules
• End of programme research project or dissertation
• A long thin module that stretches over a year or more
• Peer feedback across several modules
• Other approaches yet to be identified

Anyone who would like to discuss their programme throughline as part of this research – whether fledgling or more advanced- please get in touch as I would love to talk to you.

My theoretical perspective is explored in: Hughes, G. (2014) Ipsative Assessment: Motivation through marking progress. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).


One Response to “Why are throughlines in a programme important? Help from a string quartet”

  • 1
    Brent Carnell wrote on 18 January 2017:

    The case of the string quartet self-analysis makes crystal clear the importance of ipsative assessment. Clearly looking at learning gain and progress against one’s self is motivating. With all the work on assessment at UCL, relevant to, yet parallel to, the Connected Curriculum, I hope colleagues can learn about the value of this approach. Similarly, this concept could frame some of the guided conversations, suggested in the new flexible approach to Personal Tutoring.

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