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.
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.
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 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.
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’.