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Denise Whitelock and Simon Rae The Open University
Themes: learning and teaching methods, assessment
The term assessment tends to conjure up all types of emotions from both students and teachers alike. Sitting examinations and marking them is not high on either group’s list of favourite things. Much of the anxiety with assessment arises from it being seen primarily as a checking device to ascertain what the student knows after key phases of a course of study.
Assessment should also form an integral part of the learning process where the personalised feedback provided to students could promote both better understanding and self-reflection. Interactive learning is a pedagogical principle favoured by the UK’s Open University when building eLearning materials and this paper examines recent developments which exhibit innovations in Interactive Assessment practices.
The Open University's foundation course ‘Discovering Science’ adopted an Interactive Learning strategy based upon the Vygotskian (1962) notion of scaffolding students within their zone of proximal development to a new level of actual attainment. Learners were assisted to complete competency tasks with structured help. If the students could not complete a task correctly they were given hints. On the third attempt a SHOW ME button could be activated to reveal the correct solution and the principles behind the answer. Surprisingly, students who gave correct answers straightaway often repeated the tasks with incorrect solutions so that they could have access to the reasoning behind the answers.
This interactive learning strategy was taken further with the ‘Maths for Science’ course which offered students a web-based examination that also provided them with immediate feedback and assistance when they submitted their answers (Whitelock and Raw 2003). Students received a final text message explaining the correct solution to the question, a type of feedback relevant to both student learning and the grading process that integrates assessment into the teaching and learning feedback loop, thus introducing a new level of discourse into the teaching cycle advocated by Laurillard (1993).
The notion that knowledge and understanding are constituted in and through interaction has considerable currency and a growing body of work emphasises the need to understand the dynamic processes involved in the joint creation of meaning, knowledge and understanding (e.g. Grossen & Bachmann 2000; Murphy, 2000; Littleton, Miell & Faulkner, 2004; Miell & Littleton, 2004). Our most recent project employs “BuddySpace”, a piece of software which facilitates awareness of others in the on-line community and supports collaborative learning, to study these notions in the formative assessment arena. Students will be given feedback as they take tests about the correctness of their response to each question, together with that of their colleagues. The project is also working with Science and Technology courses to build complex problem solving activities that require a partner to assist with their solution as well as more straightforward feedback systems for individuals to use to test their understanding of a particular Technology domain.
The findings to date suggest that Interactive Learning and Interactive Assessment can be the two faces of the same coin and that the emphasis should be on providing timely feedback and also that software developments to enhance student learning with Interactive Formative Assessment should be seriously considered.