This guest post comes courtesy of Johan Adriaensen (Maastricht) & Carola Betzold (Antwerp).
Higher education often engenders a dual ambition. Upon graduation, we expect students to be prepared for the professional labour market. At the same time, we aspire them having developed academic qualities such as a critical mind-set, an understanding of scientific research and an inquisitive attitude. Reading between the lines, it is not hard to see that many of these ambitions do not revolve around students’ acquisition of knowledge but rather about the mastery of particular skills and attitudes. While there is a lot of literature available on innovative teaching methods to promote the learning of skills and attitudes, we wondered whether the standard methods of evaluation (exams, written assignment) are adequate to assess a student’s mastery of these important skills and -in turn- signal their accomplishment to any future employer.
But what exactly are these skills that students should learn, what are different ways of evaluating these skills, and how could we help students showcase their skills to the outside world? To address these questions, we organised a session on “Student evaluation and student portfolios” at the recent EUROTLC conference in Brussels. Using a World Café format, participants first identified generic skills students should acquire over the course of studies and then turned to different forms of evaluation of these skills. Finally, the discussion centred on student portfolios as one tool to enable graduates to present their skills to future employers.
So what are the skills we should teach and students should learn? The list is long: being able to communicate clearly via written as well as spoken word. Organising, prioritising and filtering information. Acquiring an inquisitive mind and becoming a life-long learner. Interestingly, these skills were quite generic to university education; it was much harder to identify skills unique to political science, international relations or European studies. Yet, the relative importance of the identified skills – and thus their prominence in the curricula – is likely to differ.
How can we assess these different skills? Is there more than essays and exams to evaluate students? Does our examination privilege certain skills or types of learners, and if so, how could we change this? Participants agreed that the evaluation of skills and attitudes require a slightly different approach and brought a range of examples on how they or their institutions provide feedback and evaluate students. One participant for instance described how he has a “menu” of tasks that students need or can do to obtain points in his class. Some elements are mandatory, but most are voluntary. Students can thus select a format that suits them: you may want to write an essay, but you could also do a presentation or take an oral exam. Another participant presented how they use peer review to obtain feedback on group work, whereby all group members have at certain points rate themselves and their peers on specific criteria such as creativity, reliability or punctuality. These open ratings are then discussed within the group: why did you give or obtain this rating? What do you take away from this? This peer review system worked very well, but did not influence the final mark.
But how much does such a mark really say about skills to a potential employer? How could students provide evidence for their skills beyond a numerical mark on an abstractly named course? To this end, we proposed the use of a portfolio. We viewed this portfolio as a sort of repository of students’ achievements and activities. The question then was how can we, as academic staff, help students to build up this evidence into a student portfolio? Ideas ranged from specific written assignments such as position papers, speeches, articles in student journals or opinionated editorials to participation in simulations and student debates. Branding and badging is an important aspect to ensure recognition of the accomplishments of the students. Competitions or the award of prizes are but one example how this can feed into a portfolio. With such a repository, you have concrete examples you can refer to in cover letters or job interviews to plausibly show what you can do.
Ultimately, time was too short for our discussions to come to a conclusion. Still, we were left with the impression that our exercise is useful for many educational programmes. Clearly, each programme is likely to prioritize different skills, requiring a different evaluation practice and offering alternative opportunities to develop a student’s portfolio. As in our World Café, the choices ultimately made, was contingent on the participants around the table. Identifying the required skills and tailoring one’s programme to it, is a collective endeavour of all involved teaching staff.