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How a UCL department improved assessment and feedback in partnership with students

UCL Department of Philosophy used the ASER process to enhance the experience of its students, and saw a big jump in student satisfaction. 

16 February 2018

When UCL's Department of Philosophy wanted to work out the reasons behind low scores in the National Student Survey (NSS), they called students for assistance.  

With the help of an ASER Facilitator, Law student Mohammad El-Gendi, they worked with their students to identify, discuss, and find solutions for many of the issues in the department, particularly around assessment and feedback.

Solutions facilitated by students, for the students

Mohammad, an undergraduate student from the Faculty of Laws and a volunteer from the UCL ChangeMakers ASER Intensive Programme, worked with the department for two months. He met with both staff and students, and worked with student representatives to understand the issues, and discuss solutions, from all sides.

He then produced a report for the staff with recommendations for action.

Dr Luke Fenton-Glynn, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, and one of the leading staff members involved in the project commented: 

“It has been invaluable having Mohammad involved. To have a student facilitate discussions and help us get to the root of issues was great. Mohammad – together with our student reps – were successful in getting a higher student turnout to discuss the department’s assessment and feedback practices than the department itself had been when trying to organise such events on its own. I believe that student-facilitated discussions also encouraged students to be more open in giving their views which gave us a more detailed and accurate student perspective. The fact that Mohammad was based in another department gave him the independent view-point needed to clearly see the issues and help us find solutions that meet our students’ needs.”

Hard work behind the scenes

The changes implemented have been a team effort from administration, teaching and management staff and have involved (amongst other things):

  • Changes to assessment practices: for example, changing assignments so that 1st years have more, but shorter assignments so they have more chance to develop from their feedback, and 2nd and 3rd years have fewer and longer ones.
  • Simplified, and online processes: allowing assignments to be submitted electronically (through Turnitin) rather than by paper for almost all modules, which decreases printing costs and stress for students and is more convenient for staff. Feedback is then collated in a form and sent via email.
  • Clarification and better communication about certain things that already existed, particularly around expectations in assessments and the roles of personal tutors.

You can see the issues identified by students, and how the department acted on them in the short video below.

MediaCentral Widget Placeholderhttps://mediacentral.ucl.ac.uk/Player/11675

The key to success

What made this development project successful has been the students’ willingness to articulate the issues and enter a dialogue with the department about change, along with the departments’ desire to listen and make changes where possible.

Luke noted how, having the project facilitated by a student made a real difference as the students were more responsive and engaged:

“Mohammed did a terrific job on behalf of the Philosophy Department and its students. I would highly recommend that other departments engage an ASER Facilitator. This is a great way of obtaining high-quality information about student opinions and priorities allowing focused and effective actions to be taken to improve teaching and learning outcomes.”

The student perspective

A second year Philosophy student commented:

“The changes implemented by the department have certainly relieved some of the stress for students. Deadlines for assessments are more spread out, and I'm able to enjoy my time with my family over the holidays and have less stress over the break.  A lot of modules also release summative essay topics early in the term, so I can effectively manage my time well and discuss my essay outlines with professors or seminar leaders in advance. 

It’s not yet perfect - I think the department could give out more assignments and feedback to students throughout the term in a balanced way to ensure that students stay on top with the topics in which they are studying. Some assessments are based on one-week of a ten-week module which encourages some students to focus on a small area of learning. I feel that giving out more assessments and feedback throughout modules would give students incentive to learn more, contributing to their overall academic progress. But it’s good to know that the department is listening to us and we’ll continue to work with staff and give them feedback so we can work together to get the balance right for the majority of students.”

What is ASER and who are ASER Facilitators?

UCL’s Annual Student Experience Review (ASER) draws together monitoring activities (data review, external examiner reports, student surveys, NSS action planning) that are extended throughout the year into an annual ‘health check’ exercise for undergraduate (UG) and postgraduate taught (PGT) provision. Read more in the Academic Manual.

ASER facilitators are students from another department, who help the Student Academic Representatives and departmental staff to work together to develop the departmental ASER action plan, particularly on assessment & feedback projects.

UCL students can apply by 15 June to become a Student Quality Reviewer or an ASER Facilitator: find out more on the Students' Union website.