Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

How will students demonstrate learning? What types of Assessments will you use? https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/

Last month I attended and presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Conference that was held in McMaster University.  It was a wonderful learning experience that allowed all participants to connect with engineering educators not only from Canada, Continue reading Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

‘Seeing beyond the self’: Using reflective writing as an assessment tool – Dan McRoberts

82648702_800bccf11eFor many years, post-secondary educators have been encouraged to move outside the classroom and create transformative learning experiences for university students. Field courses, service learning, and cooperative education are all examples of the kinds of programming that have become increasingly common and popular amongst undergraduates looking to incorporate some unique and useful experiences in their university careers.

Despite the popularity and growth of transformational learning, questions persist about the most effective ways of assessing student learning that results from these experiences. Experiential learning is hard-to-measure so traditional assessment measures often fall short of the mark. Reflective writing is often at the heart of assessment measures employed to qualitatively measure transformative learning, with self-evaluation, and journaling common assignment formats. There are significant challenges with using reflection to assess students, related to the highly personal nature of the transformations being recorded. Pagano and Roselle (2009) find that there is usually little clarity or systematization involved in using reflective practice. What is involved can vary substantially between courses or instructors. Also, reflection tends to rely on students’ own accounts of events and responses and as such it is very hard to discern if learning has indeed taken place. Woolf (2008) also identifies concerns with the confessional ‘dear diary’ approach to reflective writing, as he aligns this with highly personal change or transformation. Given that much of the possible value in transformative learning comes from the opportunity to ‘see beyond the self,’ the question becomes how to design assignments and assessments that will help students develop this awareness and critical reflexivity.

Sometimes it helps to divide the task into two parts, one which focuses on personal development and the other that relates to key academic objectives or themes. Peterson (2008) profiles a service-learning course assessment that combined personal narrative with more academic analysis. Students were asked to prepare two journals with these respective foci, rather than being asked to write whatever came to mind. Doubling the student (and instructor) workload may not be the ideal solution, but fortunately there are models for designing reflective writing that can assess several components in the same assignment.

One is the DEAL model developed by Patti Clayton, which involves students Describing their experience, Examining the experience in light of specific learning objectives, and Articulating their Learning. The assignment is guided by specific prompting questions that encourage students to complete these various tasks in their reflective writing, from the who, what when and where of an experience (describing learning) to more detailed prompts about what was learned and how (examining and articulating learning).

Another, perhaps less well-known, approach is the ‘refraction model’ proposed by Pagano and Roselle (2009). Refraction tries to incorporate critical thinking into the process of reflection to encourage students to move beyond their own perceptions and consider how to address problems or scenarios they may have experienced in their course. This process begins with reflection and activities that are common to the assessment of transformational learning outcomes. From here, however, the authors propose using critical analytic and thinking skills to refract this knowledge and generate learning outcomes. The first stage – reflection – involves asking students to log events and journal reactions. The critical thinking phase asks students specific questions about these experiences, and the refraction stage invites them to suggest solutions and interact with others and their ideas about the same events or issues.

Whether or not the DEAL approach or refraction model are applied, it is useful to remember what Nancy Johnston from Simon Fraser University says about reflection as a means of assessment. “We are looking for evidence of reflection, which means that students are challenging their assumptions, appreciating different points of view, acknowledging the role of power and discourse, the limitations of their conclusions and in short moving from black and white understandings towards recognizing varied shades of gray.”

(image credit: Paul Worthington)

Using “Transit Questions” in place-based pedagogy – Trevor Holmes

I love being in the classroom, whether it’s large or small, whether I’m officially the teacher or the learner. But I also love getting out of the classroom. Some of the most powerful experiences in my own learning and my own teaching have been observing, interacting, and reflecting in spaces other than lecture halls and seminar rooms. Some time ago, I wrote about place-based pedagogy (with some suggested reading) and gave the example of a workshop for the Educational Developers Caucus (EDC) conference at Thompson Rivers University. Since then, I have continued to use what previously I hadn’t a name for in my own cultural studies course — the field observations and intellectual response papers, the spontaneous “field trips” out into parts of campus to apply concepts, the incorporation of people’s experiences into the framework of the course.

Today’s post is about a small piece of the place-based learning experience I had at the EDC conference, a piece that I’m considering using with my own learners when they do their field observations. To date, I’ve supplied them with reflection questions and notetaking guides for the site visits. I’ve used the online quiz tool in the learning management system to ask “prime the pump” journal questions. But I’ve never yet tried the “transit question” approach. Transit questions were thought-triggering questions handed out just before traveling to the field sites in Kamloops. There were, to my recollection, four different cue cards and each pair of people received one or two cue cards. The idea was that the question on the front (and maybe there was one on the back) would ready us for what we were about to see by asking us about related prior experience with X, or what we expect to find when we get to X, or how is X usually structured. The idea was to talk to our partners about the questions and answer them informally as we made our way to the sites (which took 10-20 minutes to get to).

Photograph of two people in Iceland
Photo of two people in Iceland. Source: Karlbark’s Fotothing stream (shared under CC license)

I can imagine transit questions for pairs that would be suitable for my course too. However, we don’t always have pairs (sometimes small groups, sometimes solitary learners going to a space in their hometown, and so on). I can easily adapt the idea for solo use, though clearly I wouldn’t want someone to be taking notes in response to the prompt while, say, driving!

If we do the field trip to Laurel Creek Conservation area again to test ideas found in Jody Baker’s article about Algonquin Park and the Canadian imaginary, I’ll be using transit questions for the bus ride for sure. With other observations I will have to think about how to adapt the idea. Choosing the right question or questions seems to be important, and offering space to jot notes for those who don’t want to start talking immediately. I’d strongly encourage this approach when you know people will be traveling somewhere for the course by bus, or by foot/assistive device. I can imagine that there are lots of opportunities to do this (and it’s likely already done) in disciplines as varied as geography, planning, fine art, architecture, biology, geosciences, accounting, anthropology, and many others. I’m thinking it would be great if they could pull questions from a question bank to their phones or other devices en route as well… the possibilities!

Transit questions on the way to field sites helped to ready me and my partner for what we’d be looking at, to reflect on the implications of our mini-field trip, and to connect our histories to the present task. I recommend them wholeheartedly.

Opening Classrooms Across Disciplines – Trevor Holmes

One of my favourite jobs as a teaching developer is to visit other people’s classrooms. I get to learn new things while providing a helpful service (observation and report for feedback to individual instructors). There’s another benefit that accrues too, though. I get to bring ideas from a panoply of disciplinary approaches back to my own classroom, reinvigorating my own teaching and ratcheting up my students’ learning.

CC Licensed image "We're Open" sign by dlofink
Open Sign

Rarely is this more apparent than during our Open Classroom series. Open Classroom is Waterloo’s unique way of celebrating our Distinguished Teaching Award winners by asking them to do some work! Each term, if possible, we ask the DTA winner to open his or her doors to other professors, new or more seasoned, it doesn’t matter. The attendees (a few to half a dozen, depending on the room capacity) sit in on the live classroom as observers, and then have an opportunity to ask questions for an hour after the class. This gives a chance not only for the visitors to experience what it’s like to be a learner in the Award-winner’s class, but for the professor to explain his or her thinking behind instructional approaches taken that day.

What is really important here is that one need not be from the professor’s home discipline to benefit from this observation and discussion. I have certainly learned some things from Waterloo professors I’ve observed, and while some of it has gone way over my head, the techniques themselves have found their way directly or indirectly into my own cultural studies lectures (even math and physics approaches!). I would heartily encourage attendance at this term’s Open Classroom (Ted McGee’s English course, the Rebel) and future Open Classrooms, regardless of your own discipline. You will find some relevance in watching and asking about a different approach, I am sure.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

Overheard on the 7 – Trevor Holmes

GRT busWhen I’m not riding my bike to work, I usually take the bus. Waiting for any of the number 7 buses, one overhears things. In the spirit of the “Overheard at” websites, I’d like to offer occasional orts of wisdom from students who, at the end of their day, Continue reading Overheard on the 7 – Trevor Holmes

“Fail often to succeed sooner”- IDEO

By Katherine Lithgow

I noticed these words on the door as I entered an instructor’s office, and commented on how appropriate they were, particularly in light of the fact that we were meeting to discuss how eportfolios could be used to help her students. She wanted to incorporate their use into a project her students would begin in the winter 2010 term and complete the following winter 2011 term with different aspects of the project being addressed in a number of different courses. Continue reading “Fail often to succeed sooner”- IDEO

Troublesome workshop invited us over the threshold – Trevor Holmes


Relying heavily on one of higher education’s most recent door-opening concepts to run a workshop on, well, door-opening concepts, Gary Poole took a FLEX lab full of people through our paces Tuesday morning, May 5th, 2009. After his Presidents’ Colloquium talk on the Monday, in which he addressed the powerful phenomenographic notion of deep versus surface learning (more on that another post), Continue reading Troublesome workshop invited us over the threshold – Trevor Holmes