Getting the message through: Communicating assessment expectations to first-year students

Year: 2015

Author: Dargusch, Joanne, Harris, Lois, Reid-Searl, Kelly, Taylor, Benjamin

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

As universities seek to cater to more diverse student population, they are increasingly offering online or blended learning environments. However, little is known about how lecturers might best provide assessment cues to support these diverse cohorts. Currently, cues (e.g., tips, strategies, reminders, scaffolding, exemplars, criteria, timelines of milestones, checklists) may be placed in forums, lectures, group emails, or as part of written or digital course materials. This study explored how lecturers communicate key messages around assessment expectations with students in online environments where traditional cue systems available in face-to-face teaching environments (e.g., body language, vocal emphasis, paper based materials) may not be present.
This study involved two innovative first-year courses in two different faculties (Engineering and Nursing) with high populations of distance students from a regional Australian university. The Nursing course was underpinned by simulation learning and 198 of the 333 students studied via distance education. The Engineering course was structured via problem based learning and 28 of the 155 students studied via distance education. Both courses also contained a mandatory residential school.
Each course was considered a unique case (Yin, 2009) due to their different subject areas and learning approaches, with analysis framed as a comparative case study. The data set included interviews with the course coordinators to identify and explain the assessment cues provided. In addition, online content related to assessment (e.g., forums, lectures, written course materials) were coded via content analysis (Silverman, 2006) to identify the volume, content, and timing of cues within each online environment.
In both cases it was found that diverse messaging systems were in place and that helpful verbal and written cues were abundant and embedded throughout the online environment. What remains unclear is how students, especially those new to online environments, might bring together these abundant cues in a productive way without experiencing cognitive overload. Further research must explore the extent to which students are conscious of or deaf to these cues and how they can be better supported to use these cues to improve their learning and academic results.
Silverman, D. (2006). Interpreting qualitative data (3rd ed.). London: Sage
Yin, R. K. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage Publications.