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The Experience of Working as an Undergraduate Programme Development Intern

ucwetka19 September 2017

Text by Noah Shepherd, third year Biological Science student.

Students examiing 'mystery' specimens at the Grant Museum of Zoology © UCL Media Services - University College London

Students examining ‘mystery’ specimens at the Grant Museum of Zoology
© UCL Media Services – University College London

Over this summer (May to July 2017) I worked closely with UCL Culture and the UCL Biosciences Division as a Programme Development Intern. The project focused on improving Dimension 5 of the Connected Curriculum – developing the public facing dimension of a Bioscience undergraduate module, Vertebrate Life and Evolution (BIOLM018); as highlighted in a recent CC Fellows’ Blog post.

The output of the project were the following:

  1. A review of the module’s focus – whether it currently meets the Connected Curriculum criteria for public facing assessment.
  2. A list of recommendations for how to fix insufficiencies highlighted in report 1.
  3. A general guidebook for other modules and programme – including this blog post, which should also aid future interns.

The first stage of the internship was meeting with supervisors and colleagues. These meetings outlined the expectations of each group which helped me to structure how to undertake the project. In these first meetings I met with my supervisor, a number of other key members of the UCL Culture team, the coordinator of the module in question and my colleague – another undergraduate student who was undertaking this internship for a different module. These meetings gave me vital leads to pursue, and essential insights into the internal workings of UCL modules and helped me to formulate the problems that I would try to tackle with regard to BIOLM018.

The UCL Culture team, in particular the Public Engagement Unit (PEU) – provided me with a list of approachable UCL teaching staff from a variety of disciplines who had incorporated public facing teaching and assessment within their respective modules. I emailed these potential contacts with a range of questions, aiming to understand how they organised and structured their respective courses to incorporated public-facing learning. Most of these contacts responded with useful advice, helping to shape my recommendations for BIOLM018.

Knowing the opinions of your classmates is vital for generating ideas that will be of interest to future students. This can be done via a review of course feedback, or by individually contacting course-mates for feedback and advice. It is important to meet with the people who can make public engagement happen. One of these was Jack Ashby, the manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Since the workshops and public facing presentations of BIOLM018 take place within this location it was important to get a general idea of what ideas are logistically possible, and what ones are not… Jack also possesses key knowledge about the audiences that visit the Grant Museum and therefore listening to him was essential for balancing the interests between the students, the teaching staff, the museum and of course the target audience, the public. Many of these meetings resulted in a radical shake-up of the route I had imagined, but this was vital for making sure that my suggestions have a chance of being ultimately implementation. Most of my informants are experts in their respective fields and thus provided great suggestions on how to tackle any potential problems. So it was important to provide them with a mix of recommendations and questions.

A significant part of this process has been about being creative when trying to generate public-facing activities for a module. This frequently required a balance between interesting and intellectually stimulating content. It is important not to dumb down the content to make it public friendly; students need to learn how to produce accessible degree-level material.

I would highly recommend the opportunity to take up similar module-development internship to other students, especially those who are passionate about public-facing learning. But being part of this process also grants great insight into the inner workings of the university and the courses we take. During the struggle of balancing the various needs of the different areas I have greatly developed my organisational and people skills.

Developing outward-facing assessments through staff-student partnerships

ucwetka14 September 2017

Producing assessments that are directed at specific audiences can bring profound learning benefits concerning both discipline specific and transferable skills, as they allow students to engage with real world situations and express themselves in their own voices. However, it seems that students find it difficult to produce outward-facing assessments aimed at imagined or notional audiences. Therefore, the best way for students to engage with the needs and interests of different audiences and to help them find the most appropriate means and language to address them with, would seem to be through working directly with real audiences as part of the learning process.

In order to address this issue for two UCL modules we have devised a collaborative project involving two student interns and the university’s Public Engagement Unit (PEU), funded through the Connected Curriculum Co-Lab initiative. The interns have each recently taken either one of the following two modules.

The modules

Vertebrate life and Evolution (BIOLM018) is a third year undergraduate module primarily taken by biological science students, which involves lectures, lab-based sessions and practicals. As part of the module, students receiving an unidentified part of an animal, a ‘mystery specimen’, which they then have to try and identify, ideally to species level. They write their research up in the form of a journal article and present their discoveries through a seven-minute presentation, to their fellow students, university staff and the general public at the Grant Museum of Zoology.

Exhibition Label for the Grant Museum of Zoology for a 'Mystery Specimen' written by a student on BIOLM018 ((c) Grant Museum of Zoology)

Exhibition Label for a ‘mystery specimen’ written by a student on BIOLM018       ((c) Grant Museum of Zoology)

Object Lessons (BASc2001) is a second year core module on the interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences programme. For the duration of one term each student is allocated an object (item or specimen) from across UCL’s museums and collections, including archaeological artefacts, art works, ethnographic objects, natural history, pathological or anatomical specimens, as well as rare books and manuscripts. The module is divided into an initial individual research component, where each student investigates and writes about ‘their own’ object, and a group work element, involving five/six students bringing their objects together to curate a virtual exhibition. Additionally, they get to present their exhibitions to staff and fellow students as part of a presentation day.

Both of these modules already incorporated a nominally outward-facing dimension, however, it seems clear that many students struggle conceiving of an audience at which to pitch their research without having had the benefit of interacting with it. This may results in over- or under pitching their presentation/exhibition. At worst, it can even make the students question the usefulness of such assessments – compared to more traditional essays or exams – if the actual audience receiving and assessing it is the same anyway, i.e. their teaching staff.

The project

The student interns worked with us with a view of turning their notionally outward-facing assessments into assessments that are truly pitched at and communicated with specific public audiences.

Initially they each produced a critical review of the entire module (not just the outward-facing assessment component) from a student’s perspective, taking into consideration the handbook, assessment guidelines and online documentation (on Moodle) as well as student feedback gathered as part of the modules. Based on these reviews the interns highlighted where the modules fail to communicate their aims and objectives sufficiently clearly and made recommendations how this could be addressed. From the outset of their involvement, the students also attended regular meetings with the PEU who advised them on best practice in public engagement and key things to bear in mind when working with public audiences and community partners.

On completion of the reviews the students began working with the PEU more intensively on redesigning the modules in order to identify opportunities to involve community partners in the learning and assessment process and produced a set of guidelines how this could be implemented in practice. This necessitated also reorganising the modules more holistically so that the outward-facing elements join up with other aspects of the modules.

Findings

While the true results of the project will only become apparent when the first cohorts of students have taken the re-designed assessments, the project has already provided several important insights. First, initiating a genuine dialogue with undergraduate students and engaging them in the module design process has been extremely eye opening to all involved. We as teachers learned lots from how the students see the modules, making plain in which areas the clarity of how we communicate these modules could be improved, while the students equally benefitted from adopting the perspective of someone developing a modules. Second, thinking about potential audiences has made us to reflect on who the learning that students undertake, and the outputs they produce, is/are relevant for; especially beyond the university.  This in turn forces us to confront the key question of the value of learning and how it relates to the ‘real world’.

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

utnvgjh9 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

DSCN0852crop

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).