B plus or A minus? Assessment in the creative disciplines

I attended ‘B plus or A minus? Assessment in the creative disciplines’, part of a programme of events being run by the University of the Arts London last week. The venue, Central St Martin’s (CSM) new Granary Wharfe, is a remarkable conversion and I recommend a visit if you get the chance. It has retained the character of its historic brick warehouses whilst creating open non-formal spaces that appear to be highly versatile in how they support performances, exhibitions and other student-led activities.

However, my purpose was to listen to academics from the creative arts talking about assessment and my personal interest in this was to understand learning and teaching culture and practice in the context of studio-based disciplines. I am going to highlight three takeaway points from the event: the process book, ipsative assessment, currencies beyond the mark (or valuing learning).

The process book as a locus of assessment


A student’s process book

In the afternoon we had a session in which students were invited to work with table groups, along with their tutor, to talk about their experience of assessment. The design student who joined my table brought his process book. In the image above you can see the book – a softbound ‘publication’ of approximately 250 pages. Inside are high quality reproductions representing all of the tasks he had been assigned – not just the finished work, but the assignment briefing and key annotated images representing each stage of his ‘workings’. While creative arts students have always used sketchbooks to capture and develop ideas, and portfolio cases for storing and carrying finished work, I was struck by the process book which had a different role and one which I think has application to other disciplines in which process and its analysis matters.

First, the book was very professional, being a high quality printed and bound edition. Initially I didn’t understand it – it looked like it was a course book that explained the tasks he was expected to do, but I soon realised that it was actually his own work. I asked where he had had it made, and he said he had made it himself. I thought perhaps he had used a service like Lulu, but presumably they have a book production service at CSM.

What captured my attention was the tactile nature of the evidence of his thinking process for each of the small tasks he had worked through. The book concretised what can otherwise be quite an abstract process. The book brought together and made real the thinking and making processes. Clearly this is important in art and design where so much attention can be given to finished works and exhibitions despite the importance of art making in becoming an artist. These disciplines rightly celebrate failure as a valuable part of learning and process books can capture this or present dead end experiments that have long term significance.

So, I need to find out more and then I need to bring what I find into my own thinking on studio-for-all.

Ipsative Assessment

It was good to meet Gwyneth Hughes from the London Institute of Education and hear her talk about ipsative assessment. Ipsative assessment, a term that has been in use since the 1940s, is when you assess students based on their learning improvement. Students are motivated by the challenge of attaining their personal bests, as she said, ‘Like a Fitbit.’
She made the point that process in learning can easily get lost to the product as noted above. She says ipsative assessment can help to address this because it is non-competitive and considers the progress, or learning gain, made by individual students. It undermines cultures that are driven by the almighty mark and allows a student and their tutor to establish and value their own goals. It seems apt for studio-based disciplines in which an individual will often commit to the pursuit of a circuitous personal learning goal through the execution of a series of works. It makes little sense, within practice, to see assessment as a competitive or normative process and, on graduation, professional practice is often an individualised matter where the only real world assessment is the the world’s response to your ways of thinking and the work that results from this.
Again, my interest here is about studio-for-all and what ipsative assessment may offer other disciplines.

Gwyneth Hughes edited ‘Ipsative Assessment and Personal Learning Gain: Exploring International Case Studies’ in 2017 published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Other currencies

I was pleased to attend an event and not be leading it, presenting at it, or even contributing to the discussions beyond those at the table breakouts. That is very unusual for me to say the least! I wanted to listen to others.

Because I am currently immersed in some work involving the redesign of learning outcomes statements and the shift from summative assessment cultures to formative, I was tempted on a number of occasions to intervene and give my two penneth on ‘other currencies’. It seems to me that higher education may have lost the plot, becoming acceptant of the dominance of summative assessment cultures in which we accept that students will not engage unless they are awarded marks for doing so. I’ll try to keep this brief and save the fuller rant for another day, but the implication is that many academics have accepted teaching and learning as an extrinsic transaction in which teaching has to squeeze in as much stuff as possible with the pretence that ‘it will be in the exam’ – otherwise students just will not engage. I find that so disappointing and it anchors teaching to the delivery content rather than the experience of learning. I often assume that it not like this in the creative arts. I had the privilege of a studio-based education which, for me, was intrinsically motivating due to the inherently personal, social and self-determined nature of studio-based study. I tend to believe that studio-based learning enjoys higher ideals than many other areas. I admit my bias, but nevertheless also observe an inherent otherness and critique when I am working with studio disciplines. I was dismayed, therefore, to discover that, according to many of the discussions on the day that these days art students need marks in order to engage as much as any other student. To give the academics their due, most seemed to be as dismayed as me with many of us sharing fond memories of pursuing ideas back in the day that only made sense to us as we ploughed our respective furrows! (That sounds like a worthwhile education to me by the way!).

Connecting this to my work on emphasising the value of formative assessment, it occurs to me that we need to develop a clearer conceptualisation of parallel currencies. Yes, ‘the mark’ is part and parcel of today’s higher education and, whoever we are, we need marks to help us reflect on and communicate our achievement with others and marking ensures that our tutors pay close attention to our progress in the age of mass education. However, I am frequently asked, “How do I engage my students in formative assessment?” The short answer which I tend not to use is to be a good teacher (and understand that teaching is perhaps the most important contribution you can make to your students i.e. being ‘expert’ and ‘knowing stuff’ is relatively inconsequential if you don’t know how to teach each and everyone of your students).

The longer answer is to understand the art and science of learner engagement. In the context of this post, this comes to having ‘other currencies’. We need to think through how we communicate the value of engaging in learning to our students. Employability is one currency, but personally I think this often corrupted because, again, many people seem to have a very shallow understanding of it, e.g. the reaction that ’employability modules’ are used to deal with ‘the problem’ of needing to include employability in the curriculum. Again, a rant for another day.

So, what other currencies do I mean? For me, the next obvious one is the currency of authenticity and situated learning. Keeping this brief, these ideas allow the academic and their students to begin by exploring the meaning of knowledge. This itself introduces the students to a more philosophical take on their education. The currency should be established at level 4 and become the learning environment or primary discourse for everything they do. By establishing such a context for learning a student can learn to self-direct and negotiate their learning.

In summary

The event got me thinking evidently. Some of what I encountered was new and some came into sharper focus. Some helped me to make connections between ideas. So thank you UAL for organising the event and opening it up at no cost. Much appreciated.

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Voices of Innovators #Twalk #audiofeedback

toolkitTwo new toolkits have been developed on the Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group site for which I am responsible. They signal a good shift for the nebulous group of innovators that comes the way of MELSIG according to it current themes and foci. Known for its events, which I hope will continue for many years to come, the development of toolkits is something that the extended community can co-develop with relative ease.

I want to draw your attention to the Voice of Innovators section in the Audio Feedback Toolkit. These are 3 minute long audio contributions submitted by anyone who is using a related method. They have the following structure:

  1. Contributor’s name and affiliation
  2. Context – the circumstances that led to the innovation
  3. Description of how the innovative method was/is being used
  4. Observations
  5. 3 tips for others who would be interested in doing something similar.

The examples which have already been submitted demonstrate well how this can be done in approximately 3 minutes. It can be thought of as an audio pecha kucha. Incidentally, the method exemplifies audio as a learning media at its best: clear, direct, personal, engaging and accessible. Not forgetting, easy to produce.

What do you have to offer?

Can you, or do you know anyone, who can offer a Voice of the Innovator mini-case study recording on either,

  • Audio Feedback including audio, screencast or video models (producer or user stories welcomed)
  • Twalks – accounts from Twalk leaders or designers, or accounts of participants

Please send your audio files to a.j.middleton ‘at’ shu.ac.uk

Looking ahead

The next MELSIG toolkit will be on Digital Storytelling. If you would like to help with pulling this together please let me know: @andrewmid or by email a.j.middleton ‘at’ shu.ac.uk or comment here or on the MELSIG site.

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Place is our starting point

Aristotle’s gymnasium , Athens

“In Aristotle …we have a very powerful philosophy of place as the starting point for all other forms of existence.” (Cresswell, 2009, p. 2)

This year will see the publication of my book Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Central to its thesis is the proposition that place and placemaking are the starting points for understanding spaces for learning. We need to be learning-centred in our thinking about space. This is fundamental to evaluating social media for learning, for example, in which learning occurs within a distributed and networked context, being experiential and unbounded. Social media learning spaces do not fit the paradigm of learning space; they are fundamentally experiential, boundless and connective and so they are unlike historic conceptions of learning space conceptualised and straight-jacketed by binary distinctions of formality and actuality.

It is apt that I am in Athens for New Year. It is here that Aristotle established his Lyceum and the gymnasium, places of learning through interaction and contemplation. This is where peripatetic learning was born. Subsequently the word peripatetic has become associated with the organisation and movement of teachers, nurses or doctors to service a region, but its original meaning was Aristotelian, describing learning as contemplative and conversational through walking. This phenomenon continues to fascinate me. Not only are learning, walking and talking central to the twitter walks (#twalks) I have run this year, but they are symbolic of a disrupted yet valid conception of learning space in which learning is part of a narrative of becoming. The same ideas are fundamental to Studio for All (Middleton, 2017) – the proposition that learning is best understood as being active, co-operative, generative and dynamic. This brings us to ‘being’ and learner agency in which each learner must first understand, accept and embrace the active learning role, developing the skills they need to learn now and into the future.

By understanding connected place rather than simply detached space as our locus, educators may begin to redirect attention to learning context and situatedness, and what this means for developing knowledge and acquiring a learning disposition. Place, then, is much more than space: learning place is more about learning situation and what this means for each learner, while learning space is more interested in pragmatic matters of location and locale.

This year I expect to pay more attention to learning as it relates to place, placemaking, being, belonging and becoming.


Cresswell, T. (2009). Place. https://booksite.elsevier.com/brochures/hugy/SampleContent/Place.pdf

Middleton, A. (2017). Studio for All: perspectives on the pedagogy and ecology of studio-based learning. Creative Academic Magazine, August 2017, pp. 31-37.

Posted in active learning, Digital Placemaking, learning space, Possibilities, social media for learning, studio-based learning, walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#socmedhe17 – what next?

socmedhe17The third annual Social Media for Learning in Higher Education Conference took place this week at Sheffield Hallam University. I have been involved with it throughout and may claim some responsibility for proposing we run it in the first place on the back of interest in #BYOD4L, several Media Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group  (MELSIG)events with a focus on #socmedhe and various collaborative activities with Sue Beckingham. This year I had very little to do with the organisation. I have just not been able to prioritise it. So first, thanks to my colleagues who have made sure that it has such a strong identity in the academic calendar and ensuring that again a rich and diverse conference has taken place. And thanks to my boss Graham Holden (@grahamjholden) who has had the vision to recognise the importance of actively exploring innovative learning spaces and it is Graham who has made this happen. Thank you.

Organising the event is quite a commitment. While the ticket price has covered the costs on the day, the staff time in running a proper peer review process is significant and we decided to look for other ways of sustaining the conference.

Some of us met to discuss this in one of the Bring Your Own Conference (#BYOC) unconference sessions in the morning. I wanted to summarise some of the points that were made and which now give ‘us’ the basis for planning next year’s event(s):

  • #socmedhe, in its own right, has a strong identity and has created a forum for an energetic community, and this gives it great value;
  • A chance to meet face-to-face is what distinguishes it from other fora through which many of the participants are also engaged (we talked a lot about #LTHEchat, #MELSIG, ALT and regional special interest groupings). We didn’t talk enough about #CLmooc or #DS106, but more on that in a minute.
  • A core group in the room including John Coupeerthwaite (@johncoup), Sarah Honeychurch (@NomadWarMachine), Simon Horrocks (@horrocks_simon), myself (@andrewmid), and a research student from Huddersfield and another student (I didn’t catch all the names, sorry) agreed that a transitional ‘ad hoc’ steering group should be established. Helen Rodger from SHU who has had the responsibility over three years to make it happen agreed to make the transition happen. We agreed a call would be made to establish this core transition group and would devise a brief to explain what such a commitment would entail.
  • We talked about existing groups, what we might learn from them and how we might co-operate with them. Some exploratory conversations will be had with one or two key organisations in January.
  • We were looking for a different modus operandi. One of the problems of a one day conference, especially one that happens before the Xmas break, is that it becomes a great landmark activity that struggles to engage its community through the rest of the year. The ideas and issues raised on the conference day are left hanging until next year and therefore there is a tendency to focus on show and tell rather than the trickier issues or the bigger ideas (though that does misrepresent the reality of quality, albeit brief, discussions.
  • Sarah Honeychurch attended the meeting and expressed her own commitment to taking the #socmedhe concept forward. On reflection I wish we had made more space to discuss more of her own experience of engaging through #CLmooc (Connected Learning) and similar initiatives like #DS106 which achieve much of what a conference can deliver, and more besides, through an active, creative connective learning ethos.

So, what will #SocMedHE become?

My guess, on the basis of the meeting, is that a core collective group will carry through the transition. We will have a conference (not at Sheffield Hallam) next year. We will also have some other things, possibly,

  • An ongoing webinar series
  • Social Media for Learning in HE podcast or YouTube channel
  • Some making, research and writing activities
  • Strong alliance with existing groups and organisations
  • An energetic and committed co-operative network able to make things happen by demonstrating the principles of an effective learning network.

Well, that’s what I’d like to see.

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Twalking as digital placemaking #twalk #socmedhe17

This 10 minute screencast introduces the key ideas of the twalk concept – learning walks with integrated tweetchats – and the pedagogic rationale underpinning walking, talking, tweeting and thinking.

The video is part of the Twalk Toolkit being developed on the Media-Enhanced Learning Special Interest Group site in time for our workshop at the Social Media for Learning in Higher Education conference (#socmedhe17) at Sheffield Hallam University next week.

Posted in active learning, BYOD, Digital Placemaking, learning space, MELSIG, social media for learning, walking | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

From outside-in to inside-out (and possibly back-to-front) rethinking #feedback

Back in the 1990s I was a young developer working in the Learning & Teaching Institute at Sheffield Hallam University. One project that I was not directly involved with, but which I was present for, was on developing the use of feedback. Led by Richard Higgins and Peter Hartley, publications from this work are much cited. I don’t think I’ve reread any until now, but clearly it is ingrained in me! Or is that because Peter was my tutor for a while some years later? Anyway, I have just reread their paper ‘Getting the message across’ (Higgins, Hartley & Skelton, 2001).

It takes a communications perspective to the design of good feedback and challenges preoccupations with a QA approach to examining the quality of feedback as being predominantly a matter of process, and argues for a student-centred view of feedback design.

“the process of feedback as communication is inherently problematic… it is impossible to investigate how an outside influence impacts upon a process if the internal dynamics of that process are not understood — that is, if the true nature of the process remains hidden (or simply assumed).” p. 272

The following is particularly pertinent to the work that I am currently conducting,

“We should be asking how the tutor comes to construct the feedback, how the student understands the feedback (how they make sense of it), and how they make sense of assessment and the learning context in general.” p. 273

As discussed in previous posts, assessment and feedback is experienced differently by each student. I argue that w recognise this as we design and engage students with the task. Higgins et al. seem to be saying something similar in the following.

“Tutors [cannot] assume that students will understand a list of assessment criteria. Feedback may need to be more dialogical and ongoing. Discussion, clarification and negotiation between student and tutor can equip students with a better appreciation of what is expected of them, and develop their understandings of academic terms and appropriate practices before or as they begin to write. Perhaps we need to shift the emphasis to ‘feeding forward’ into a piece of work, rather than simply ‘feeding back’. ” p. 274

This is where my ‘back-to-front’ comes in – let us focus more on how a student comes to a task  – how they are supported in navigating it – before we dive in to work out why there may be a problem with the feedback, wherever it occurs.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P. & Skelton, A. (2001). Getting the message across: the problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education, 6(2), pp. 269-274. – https://doi.org/10.1080/13562510120045230

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