Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy

Earlier this year, I was awarded Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy and I thought it might be useful to share my experiences of the application and recognition process to assist others who are considering an application.

Context

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) is a national body that champions teaching quality and focusses on the contribution of teaching as part of the wider student learning experience. Essentially, its mission is to improve learning outcomes by raising the quality and status of teaching in higher education. The HEA offers four grades of fellowship, depending on levels of knowledge and experience, starting with Associate Fellow, then rising to Fellow, Senior Fellow, and finally Principal Fellow. HEA fellowships are aligned to the UK Professional Standards Framework (a nationally-recognised framework of guidelines), so receiving one is proof of good practice as well as important recognition for your work!

The HEA offers two pathways to Fellowship; an ‘accredited’ route and an ‘experienced’ route. In this post, my discussions will be focussed on the experienced route, because that was the pathway that I followed and because, I would suggest, it requires a higher level of autonomy on the part of the applicant than the accredited route (and thus useful to hear about someone else’s experiences).

The accredited route generally applies to people who have completed an HEA-accredited continuing professional development (CPD) programme or Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in teaching and learning. You will usually be informed by your programme leader if the course you’ve completed is HEA-accredited and, if so, which level of HEA fellowship it is most applicable to. You then simply complete the application form and pay the relevant fee.

The experienced route applies to teaching academics or learning support staff who have gained relevant levels of knowledge and experience through practice and, for this route, candidates apply directly to the HEA for a Fellowship. For the experienced route, you will need to demonstrate in your application that your knowledge and experience meet a specific ‘descriptor’ of the UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF). It is therefore important that you familiarise yourself with the UKPSF and work out which descriptor relates to your current level of experience before embarking on this route.

Are you at the right level?

My first piece of advice, before applying for Senior Fellowship of the HEA (SFHEA), is to consider whether or not it is the appropriate level of fellowship for your current level of knowledge and experience. SFHEA is awarded in recognition of a ‘sustained record of effectiveness in relation to teaching and learning, incorporating the organisation, leadership and/or management of specific aspects of teaching and learning provision’. Therefore, it is primarily applicable to ‘experienced staff who are able to demonstrate impact and influence through leading and managing within a learning and teaching context’.

The application process for SFHEA is much more involved than for Associate Fellow or Fellow and you will need to have (and be able to prove) a ‘sustained record of effectiveness’ in order to complete the application forms. All fellowship applications require you to submit an Account of Professional Practice (APP) which is a ‘reflective commentary on your higher education roles, responsibilities and professional experience focused on selected Dimensions of the UK Professional Standards Framework’. However, for SFHEA, not only does your APP need to address more aspects and higher levels of the UKPSF, you also need to submit two ‘case-studies’ as evidence of your contributions to ‘learning and teaching’ and ‘leadership and management’. If you do not have the requisite levels of knowledge and experience required for SFHEA, you probably won’t have sufficient evidence for your case studies and you will struggle, overall, to complete the application process.

To give you some basic idea of kind of experience applicable to SFHEA, here is a selection of the kinds of things that I do. I have been teaching in HE for eight years, I teach across all year levels, I create modules from scratch, I am a module convenor and a year group tutor. I employ innovative methods of teaching and assessment, I am responsible for coordinating staff and resources for groups of modules, I have established departmental procedures and contributed to best-practice guidelines. I sit on interview panels, mentor new members of staff, sit on departmental and university committees, engage in high degrees of public engagement and I undertake CPD in relation to both my subject area and professional practice. When I looked at the criteria for Senior Fellowship, I felt that my role placed me at the appropriate level and, with my knowledge and experience, I would be able to fulfil the criteria.

The application process

The SFHEA application process is, undoubtedly, quite involved, requires a high degree of information management, lots of attention to detail, familiarity with the UKPSF, and a clear understanding of how what you do on a day to day basis relates to the UKPSF. However, I have to say that, personally, I did not find the application process that onerous or difficult to complete. I would suggest that was because I was at the appropriate level and had the necessary knowledge and experience to meet the criteria without any real difficulty; all that was required was communicating that through my APP and my two case studies (which, admittedly, did take some doing, but it was, nonetheless, a relatively straightforward process).

The application guidance notes provided by the HEA are excellent for outlining what you should include in your APP when applying for SFHEA. Overall, the APP should be no more than 6000 words in total, which has to include your reflective commentary and your two case studies. My APP was broken down into approximately 2500 words for my reflective account, 1500 for my ‘leadership and management’ case study and 2000 words for my ‘learning and teaching’ case study.

I would say that the main thing with the reflective commentary section is simply to explain, in a clear and straightforward manner, what you do, why you do it and, crucially, the wider implications of what you do. You are, essentially, explaining to the assessors what you do in your role and, importantly, demonstrating that what you do meets the specific elements of the UKPSF that relate to the appropriate descriptor (in the case of SFHEA, this is Descriptor 3).

When demonstrating that you meet the particular elements of the UKPSF you can (and should), include specific references to the appropriate criteria. This helps the assessors to see that you understand the UKPSF and, more importantly, that you recognise how it actually relates to and informs the job that you do. So, for example, here is a short extract from the reflective section of my APP.

“I design, develop, convene and teach an extensive range of innovative modules across all four undergraduate years [A1, A2, A3, A4, K1, K2, K3, K4, K5]. I design entirely new modules which are derived from my own research, examples being *** and *** as well as expansively developing and adapting existing modules which I have inherited [A1, A5, K1, V3]. All of my modules have been created in compliance with the quality standards and regulations of the university and in line with the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Subject Benchmarks for history [K6, V4] (QAA, 2014). As well as delivering lectures, seminars, workshops and tutorials, I create and administer the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for each of my modules and I am responsible for selecting and supplying students with appropriate study materials and resources [A2, A4, K1, K4]”.

For upmost clarity, I chose to reference the UKPSF criteria at the end of the appropriate sentence, as I would with a footnote reference, but I have seen other (successful) applications which collect together all the references at the end of the paragraph. The important thing is that you clearly demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the connections between the UKPSF and the things you do.

Devising your case studies

With regard to the two case studies, one of the best pieces of advice I was given (and which I positively endorse) was to structure the case study on the basis of how you addressed a particular issue and the outcome of your actions and/or interventions. So, your case study is basically saying, ‘there was a particular issue that I identified needed addressing, here is why (in the wider context) the issue needed addressing, here is what I did to address that issue, and these are the outcomes or implications of my actions (positive or otherwise)’. I found that this ‘problem’, ‘intervention’, ‘outcome’, structure worked very well indeed and it allowed me to focus reflectively on my particular role in the activity and demonstrate my skills and abilities while also ensuring that my discussions were analytical and explained the importance of what I’d done, rather than just being a narrative of the activity itself.

For one of the two case studies, you need to demonstrate having had ‘a significant impact upon the co-ordination, support, supervision, management and/or mentoring of others (whether individuals and/or teams), in relation to learning and teaching’. This is, essentially, a case study about your knowledge and experience in areas of leadership and management.

For this case study, I documented my leadership and management in addressing some issues we were having with getting year-one students to engage with primary source evidence and approach sources in an analytical manner. Our year-one modules are all ‘team taught’ and so there were numerous members of staff involved with delivering information and guidance to students. In my role as year-one tutor and in collaboration with several colleagues, I developed a range of resources and best-practice procedures to ensure that, across all modules, students received consistent advice and tuition about how to analyse primary sources. We also ensured that there were opportunities in every module for practice and formative assessment of source analysis exercises and that, when setting exam papers, all convenors worked to a standard structure which ensured a degree of consistency across all exam papers and, crucially, that the assessment would allow students to fully demonstrate the skills they had acquired. The learning outcomes of these changes are still being assessed, but in terms of leadership and management it was clear that we had addressed some significant issues and created a much more coherent and consistent approach to the task.

For the second case study, you need to demonstrate your ‘sustained effectiveness in relation to learning and teaching and that you meet the criteria for Senior Fellowship’. This is basically a case study in which you demonstrate your knowledge and experience in areas of leaning and teaching.

For this case study, I showcased my introduction of blogs and blogging as a form of assessed coursework, some aspects of which I have outlined and discussed in previous posts on this blog. I situated my particular activity (blogging) into the wider context of debates about ‘digital natives’ and ‘knowmads’, explaining how the students who fill our lecture theatres and attend our seminars will, in many cases, be entering a very different world of work and employment where skills such as blogging and social media may well be more applicable to their jobs than extended pieces of formal writing. In the case study I explained what the issues were, I situated them into the wider context of both my subject area (History) and higher education more generally, and I then documented my interventions (introduction of blogging as a form of assessment) and some initial results of those interventions. As you will see from earlier posts on this blog, the outcomes of the initiative where not universally positive, but the crucial thing from a learning and teaching perspective was to evaluate and address the strengths and weaknesses of the activity and move forward; something which was positively achieved.

Coming back to my earlier statements, I would suggest that if you are at the appropriate level for SFHEA you will not have too much trouble identifying and writing up two practice-based case-studies as you will have the length of experience to have undertaken such activities. If you do not yet have sufficient experience for your case-studies, but intend working towards applying for SFHEA, I would suggest making it a priority to identify things you are doing (or could be doing in the near future) from which you can collect evidence and utilise as case studies. This may simply be documenting something innovative you are already doing as part of your L&T practice or it may be that you need to involve yourself in a team project or committee at department or university level. Seek advice from your line manager or Head of Department and work with them to identify areas for personal and professional development that you can then utilise in your application. If you are at the right level, you will be doing things that meet the criteria; you just need to look more closely to identify them and recognise how they align with the UKPSF. Try to avoid simply doing things or arbitrarily taking on extra responsibilities just so you have something to put in your application; rather, recognise what you are already doing or take on things because they are suitable opportunities in themselves.

Referee statements

In addition to your APP, the other central component of your application for SFHEA are the statements from your two referees. The HEA recommends that at least one of your referees is a Fellow, Senior Fellow, or Principal Fellow of the HEA or ‘an appropriate experienced member of staff working for a higher education institution’. In my case, one of my referees was my Head of Department, who was very familiar with what I did, and the other was one of our external examiners, who had been examining all my modules for the previous four years. Your referees need to be familiar with your experience and achievements specifically in learning and teaching, rather than your record of research which is only relevant (in this instance) in so far as it directly informs your teaching. It really is vital that your referees have a well-developed knowledge and understanding of what you do as their statements are far more involved than a straightforward academic reference.

Your referees have to be able to ‘comment on how the applicant meets the Dimensions of The UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) for teaching and supporting learning in higher education’ and, as such, they themselves need to have a really good knowledge and understanding of the UKPSF. The referees also need to provide ‘practical examples’ to support their comments and so they really do need to be familiar with what you actually do or have done. You need to select your referees very carefully, not only to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge to compose the statement, but also to ensure that they are aware of what they are undertaking. Writing a referee statement for a SFHEA application will take a significant amount of time and work and it is vital that you make that clear to your referees when you are asking them to support your application. The HEA provides guidance notes to send to referees but, personally, I would, ideally, try and meet with each referee well in advance of the process and explain to them, candidly and explicitly, exactly what will be needed and the amount of work that could be involved.

The HEA recognises that ‘this is a different kind of reference from one that is normally required for promotion or a job appointment, as we are looking for evidence of the applicant’s commitment to effective practice in teaching and/or supporting learning, rather than general academic achievement’. As such, you can regard the referee’s statements as being less of a confidential evaluation of your abilities and perhaps more of a collaborative effort, whereby you might, to some degree, work with the referee to perhaps highlight particular areas that you have not had space to discuss at length in your APP, or you might provide them with additional context on the activities discussed in the APP. Keep in mind that you are assembling an application which explains to the assessors what you do and demonstrates that, for SFHEA, you are operating and performing in line with Descriptor 3 of the UKPSF; all the resources you submit, including your referee statements, should be working in tandem to fully support that objective.

Submitting your application

Once you have completed your APP and received your referee statements, the application procedure itself is relative straightforward and is all undertaken online. You need to register with the HEA and then you simply log in and follow the instructions to submit your application. Applications for SFHEA have a rolling deadline and so you can apply at any time during the year. The length of time it takes to receive a decision depends very much on the dates of the HEA review panels, which are generally held each month. You should typically allow 6-8 weeks for a decision (although I heard within a month). This is particularly relevant if you are planning to utilise your fellowship of the HEA in relation to applying for a post or a promotion; bear in mind that it can take some time to complete the application, obtain your referee statements and receive a decision.

The good news is that if your initial application is unsuccessful (often due to insufficient evidence for meeting the criteria) it will be referred back to you along with constructive advice for revisions. Particularly with applications for SFHEA, if the assessors feel that you are not at the appropriate level, they may encourage a reapplication at a lower level of Fellowship. You are offered one opportunity to resubmit without being charged again, but after that all reapplications incur further costs. When I was applying for SFHEA, the impression I got was that it is not uncommon for people to apply for Senior Fellowship when they are not quite at that level, but also that there are relatively few applications to the HEA which do not qualify for a fellowship, even if it is lower than the grade applied for.

You should bear in mind that membership of the HEA is not free and there is a charge to submit your application. If you are from an institution that subscribes to the HEA, the cost of applying for SFHEA is £300. If you are from a non-subscribing institution or an independent scholar, the fee is £600. At the moment, it is just a one-off payment and there is no annual fee for membership, although there has been some talk of the HEA introducing annual membership fees for fellows. It is worth asking in your department or the wider faculty if there is any additional financial support to assist with the costs of becoming a fellow of the HEA and many institutions recognise the value of HEA membership and will support applications. It may also be that your institution offers facilities for the accredited route so always check that first before pursuing the experienced route (particularly at your own expense).

Conclusions

So, overall, I found the process of applying for SFHEA relatively straightforward and I think that if you have reached the appropriate level and are, on a day to day basis, undertaking the activities that sustain you at the appropriate level, you will not have too much trouble putting together an APP including two practice-based case studies. I would suggest that if you start assembling an application for SFHEA and you are struggling to fulfil the criteria or to identify two suitable case studies, you should probably think about applying for Fellowship or Associate Fellowship while you work to gain the necessary experience for SFHEA.

I think there are a number of really good reasons to work towards and apply for SFHEA.

Firstly, researching and writing your APP is a highly reflective process and it is a really useful opportunity to step back and take a good look at the job you do and to evaluate your skills and experience. This not only reminds you of the range of things you do and your professional expertise in those things, but it also allows you to see where there is room for growth and development and areas of your role that, going forward, you might wish to move into. I found that the process of researching the context for my APP case-studies reinvigorated my interest in research and scholarship on pedagogy and widened my knowledge and understanding of the implications of digital technology on learning and teaching.

Secondly, from a practical and pragmatic perspective, HEA recognition is a valuable addition to your CV and institutions are increasingly regarding it as a requirement for employment and/or promotion. In that respect, it is a very visible indicator, a badge even, that proves and demonstrates to your employer (or a prospective employer) that you can operate and perform at a particular level in a nationally-recognised framework. It is not, though, a matter of getting the badge just to tick a box on your CV; you should regard it as a genuine reflection and recognition of your skills, and your abilities, and the expertise you have acquired and employed. For me, I feel I was already operating at the required level and that the things I was doing were simply part of successfully performing my role. Consequently, HEA recognition was, for me, exactly that; recognition of something was already doing rather than something I felt I was ‘jumping through hoops’ to attain.

Thirdly, in many institutions the criteria for SFHEA is closely aligned with many of the markers for Senior Lecturer and, again, from a pragmatic point of view, undertaking the process of applying for and attaining SFHEA can provide a valuable reflective opportunity to assemble an application for promotion. This was certainly the case for me and my award of SFHEA was shortly followed by promotion to Senior Lecturer. Likewise, those who have already undergone the process of applying for Senior Lecturer (or Reader) may find that they already have a good range of insights to use for a SFHEA application.

Finally, attaining a fellowship of the HEA and particularly SFHEA or PFHEA is, on some level, making a statement about the importance and centrality of learning and teaching within higher education and demonstrating a commitment to excellence in delivering learning and teaching. It is not necessarily the award itself which does this, but rather it is the process behind the award, which encourages practitioners to look closely at what they do and to recognise the skills, expertise and value that their work entails. With the inevitable advent of the TEF, there is going to be much more focus on demonstrating ‘teaching excellence’ and there is undoubtedly a danger that memberships and fellowships of professional bodies, like the HEA, could end up being seen as little more than quantitative ‘box ticking’ metrics. However, the more people who attain fellowships, the more people there will be who understand (and can explain and demonstrate) that these are genuine reflections of reflective practice and consistently high standards.

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Student blogging; my conclusions so far…

By reflecting upon my experiences of introducing this new form of assessment into two different modules at two distinctly different year-group levels, I have been able to account for the results and, consequently, to consider certain aspects of the assignment.

One of the strengths of a blog is that it fosters interactive, independent and autonomous learning; something which, judging by their feedback and their results, the year 2 & year 3 students relished and, more importantly, were able to adapt to alongside learning the subject matter. Conversely, at year 0 the students are undoubtedly on a steeper learning curve to begin with and although all of them were able to learn and manage the practicalities of blogging, the acquisition and maintenance of those skills detracted from time spent studying the subject, hence their weaknesses in knowledge and understanding. This is also reflected in their feedback as they did not particularly rate or value the exercise as an especially suitable means to learn more about the topic.

Interestingly, this sentiment was not overly expressed by the year 2 and year 3 students (who rated that aspect of the task quite highly). I think this can be accounted for by looking at the relationship between the task itself and the subject matter of the module as much as it can by looking at the level of the students involved. For the years 2 & 3 module, which was on the topic of social movements and popular protest in history, the blog assignment was a close and relevant fit for the module topic because blogs and social media have become such integral parts of social and protest movements. However, the year-0 module was on nationalism and national identity and while developments in communications technology and social media have, undoubtedly, had some influence on those issues, there is, historically, less of a relationship between things such as blogging, social media and nationalism which might also help to explain the disconnection between the blogging and the subject experienced by the year-0 students.

Students in both modules were, by and large, allowed to entirely select their own topics and case studies for the blogs which, again, with the year 2 & year 3 students was enthusiastically and capably embraced. For the year-0 students, however, it appears to have been slightly too much of a challenge to choose, research and refine their own topic as well as manage everything else; comments from students suggested that they struggled to know where to start or how to progress. It would appear that the year-0 students also struggled slightly with the independent and autonomous nature of the blogging assignment and because their critical and investigative skills are, by and large, still being developed they would, in hindsight, have benefitted from more rigid boundaries at the start and more guidance and intervention as the module progressed.

Going forward, I have decided to continue using blogs as a summative assessment tool in both year 0 and years 2 & 3 level modules, but I have learned a great deal from my initial experiences which has led me to make some alterations to the assignments.

At years 2 & 3 level, I have altered how the blog is weighted in terms of the overall grade for the module as student feedback suggested that the task involved too much work for 40% of the grade. I am running the same module again in 2017 and the blog will constitute 70% of the overall grade. Also, at years 2 & 3 level, I am introducing blogging into another new module but I will be setting up and administering a single blog that all students then contribute one or two posts to as authors. This will constitute 30% of the assessment for that module and will mean that, although students will need to know how to make a post onto a WordPress blog, they won’t have to design and manage the whole blog themselves.

At year-0 level, the changes are more extensive. I have redesigned the assessment as a small-group blog project, whereby four or five students work together to create, edit and publish one blog, each contributing to setting it up but then making posts as authors on just one or two aspect of a particular topic rather than tackling the whole subject and managing the blog themselves. This will not only reduce the blog management workload and allow more time for studying the subject but will also facilitate teamwork, allow for peer support and make the exercise more structured while still allowing for individual creativity.

I am also planning to offer additional guidelines and boundaries for year-0 students, setting each group particular aspects of a specific nation to investigate, rather than placing the onus on them to completely direct the work. I will also be providing, right from the start of the process, much more specific tuition and guidance as to what kinds of things they might blog about, ideas for when to post blogs and where to source relevant information, as well as more closely following their blogs as they update them and offering support and feedback on their posts via the ‘comments’ facility.

Having now introduced and employed student blogging as an assessment tool I most certainly stand by my initial declarations that it provides an inventive, creative and legitimate platform for student work and it provides students with valuable transferable skills suited to new types of workplace and work practices. As with any other type of new and innovative method of assessment, there have been minor aspects and issues which have needed tweaking and things which, with hindsight, I might have approached differently. Nevertheless, the majority of students undertaking the assignment engaged well with it, expressed interest in it and found it to be an enjoyable experience, with a significant number of them producing well-researched and creatively deployed work of a high standard.

I have continued to use student blogs and blogging (my students are doing it this term) and, in the months to come, I will continue to document my experiences and provide updates on if and how my alterations and adaptations have impacted upon results and the student experience. I would certainly encourage others academics and tutors to give student blogging a go and see if it works for them; I’d also love to hear how it goes!

Student blogs as assessments: case study 2, year 2 & year 3 students

In the previous post, I documented my experience of introducing a blog as a summative assignment for year-0 students on the department of history’s Integrated Degree Programme. In this post I want to discuss and examine the results of introducing a similar assignment for year 2 and year 3 students.

The first thing to note is that, at year 2 & year 3 level, the results were startlingly more successful and encouraging than at year 0. Out of fifty submissions, only four students failed and nearly 50% achieved a grade of 60 or above. Two of the seven first-class students achieved a grade of 76 and the overall quality of the work was very high.

As with the year-0 module, the year 2 and year 3 students were given the same twelve-question feedback form in which they rated a series of statements about the blog assignment. Students were asked to provide a rating of between 1 and 5, 1 being the lowest or least positive and 5 being the highest or most positive. Questions were worded in the following manner: ‘How much experience of using blogs did you have before the module?’, ‘In terms of learning about the module subject, how would you rate blogging as a form of assessment?’, ‘In terms of practicalities and ease of use, how would you rate blogging as a form of assessment?’. The survey was voluntary and thirty-seven of the fifty years 2 & 3 students completed it.

Once again, the results of the survey generally concurred with the grades and the ratings of the year 2 and year 3 students were, overall, more positive than those of the year-0 students.

LB Chart

Many more of the students has prior experience of having used a blog and more of them recognised that, through creating and using blog in the module, they were acquiring a useful transferable skill. Interestingly, the year 2 and year 3 students felt that blogging hadn’t been an obstacle to learning about the module subject or fulfilling the learning objectives and they rated highly the freedom for creativity and personal expression that the medium offers.

It was encouraging to see, as with the year 0 students, that both cohorts had felt well supported and that they had felt they had received a good level of tuition on how to undertake the exercise; something which I was very keen to ensure. Encountering any new form of assessment can be disorientating and potentially worrying for students, particularly if it is a summative assignment, and I think it is absolutely imperative that if we expect students to do something we make sure they know how to do it and how to do it well.

In contrast to the year-0 students, the results show that those in year 2 and year 3 had enjoyed the task, had felt engaged with it, rated it highly as a form of assessment, and a good percentage of them felt they were likely to continue blogging afterwards (I’m aware of at least one student who has).

As with the year-0 students, those in year 2 and year 3 were also able to provide comments on the feedback form.  These were generally more positive and the students appeared to have understood and appreciated the intentions and purposes behind the assignment a bit more than the year-0 students had. One of the only negative comments, which was apparently shared by others on the module, was that the blog task was too involved and time consuming for its 40% weighting.

‘It was incredibly useful to try a different method of assessment aside from essays and I feel as though I have gained a transferable skill’.

‘Great idea, really enjoyed blogging. More courses should have this as a form of assessment’.

‘I have enjoyed blogging as part of the course structure, it has given the opportunity to express your own opinion on the subject and draw your own comparisons’.

‘I appreciate the university attempting to be more creative in its assessment processes; however knowing you’re getting assessed on something you are only using for the first time is daunting!’

‘The main thing that riled most people about the course was that for the amount of credits the course gives, you need to do twice the work as is normal to comparable courses’.

I did not, initially, introduce blogging into two different modules at two such different levels in order to undertake a comparative study and analysis of the results of doing so; I did it because I believed they would be an interesting, enjoyable and effective form of assessment with the potential to deliver a range of pertinent skills and knowledge.

Nevertheless, it was extremely useful to run the two modules side by side and to critically monitor and assess the progress of the students as they undertook the task and to garner their views and opinions once they had completed it.

I have learned enormously from their experiences and mine and, in my next (and final) post on these case studies, I will be reflecting on what I learned from them and how I have modified my approach (and altered the blog assignments in both modules) as a result.

Student blogs as assessments: case study 1, year-0 students

In the previous post I outlined two case studies of introducing blogs as summative assignments for students at different levels of an undergraduate degree in history. In this post I want to discuss and examine the outcome of the exercise at year-0 level

So, at year-0, thirteen of the eighteen students (72%) failed the blogging assignment, attaining less than the grade of 50 or above required (at that level) to pass that 50% of the assessment. The vast majority of fail grades were just under the pass mark threshold and, because it represented just 50% of the overall grade, no student failed the module overall as a result of their blog mark. Nevertheless, the first impression was that, in many ways, this appeared to represent a significant and fairly catastrophic failure of blogging as a form of summative assessment.

However, it was interesting that all the year-0 students had managed to create, edit and publish their blog without too much difficulty and it was actually the content of the posts and their ability to analyse the subject matter where the weaknesses occurred. This seemed to suggest that blogging itself was not specifically the issue and that the practicalities of the task had been attainable and, indeed, attained. Each of the students had successfully navigated the process of creating their blog, adding an additional page for a bibliography, posting the required number of posts and adding things like pictures and hyperlink; they had clearly understood how to blog; it was analysing the subject that they had struggled with.

As part of the submission process, students were given the opportunity to complete a very rudimentary twelve-question feedback form in which they rated a series of statements about the blog assignment. Students were asked to provide a rating of between 1 and 5, 1 being the lowest or least positive and 5 being the highest or most positive. Questions were worded in the following manner: How much experience of using blogs did you have before the module? In terms of learning about the module subject, how would you rate blogging as a form of assessment? In terms of practicalities and ease of use, how would you rate blogging as a form of assessment? The survey was voluntary but sixteen of the eighteen year-0 students completed it and, generally speaking, the results of the survey concurred with the grades.

As the chart below shows, most of the students had not blogged before but felt that they had received high level of tuition and support on how to do it, which was reflected in their ability to undertake the blog itself. Furthermore, the areas where students felt the blog had not been especially useful to them or where they felt it was less suitable as a means of assessment were in terms of ‘learning about the module subject’ and ‘fulfilling the learning objectives’; again, both of these were reflected in the results, with in-depth knowledge and understanding of the subject being a weakness.

NNNI Chart

The feedback form also gave students the option to comment on the assignment and, interestingly, the comments were mixed and polarised:

‘Most enjoyable piece of work I have ever done and I really enjoyed this. I hope this catches on as it is great fun and a good motivator’.

‘I really enjoyed doing the blog, however I’m not very good with technology in general so at times it was quite frustrating; I do prefer writing essays, in the sense that it’s a lot more straightforward, although the freedom of the blogs and the idea of blogging are very appealing’.

‘I disliked the idea of blogging and was uncertain as to how to approach this assessment, ending up essentially writing an informal essay and dividing it up into posts. I don’t feel like I have written an academic piece of work’.

‘I would have much preferred to have written an essay. After spending the year getting to grips with referencing correctly I found it almost like taking a step backwards’.

The results and feedback certainly gave me a great deal to think about and to re-evaluate in relation to blogging with year-0 students. In a later post I will be discussing my reflections on the exercise and the adjustments I have made to the assignment which I am running again in the 2015-16 academic year, albeit in a slightly different way.

Before doing that, though, what of the year two and three students who also undertook blogging as a form of assessment; did they fare any better…

Blogs as assessed coursework – two case studies

In 2014 I decided to introduce a ‘blog’ as a summative assignment in two of the modules I was teaching in the Department of History during the 2014-15 academic year.

One of these modules, on the subject of ‘Nations, Nationalism and National Identity’, was delivered to eighteen, year-0 undergraduate students enrolled on the university’s Integrated Degree Programme (IDP). The blog was undertaken during the last five weeks of the module and made up 50% of the overall grade, the other 50% being an essay.

The IDP provides entry into higher education for people returning to study after a period of work or caring responsibilities, or those who have experienced an interrupted education, perhaps as a result of particularly challenging life circumstances. There are no formal entry requirements and admission is based upon clear evidence of the skills and abilities to read and understand complex texts, to communicate effectively in written and oral form and to engage with history as an academic subject. Students who pass year 0 automatically progress into year one of the standard undergraduate degree and students are graded against exactly the same assessment criteria (albeit differentiated).

The other module, on the subject of ‘Social Movements and Public Protest in London, 1830-2003’, was delivered to fifty undergraduates, a mix of year two and year three students, mostly single-honours history but some combined honours. In this case, the blog was completed throughout the whole ten weeks of the module and made up 40% of the overall grade, the other 60% being an essay.

In advance of both modules, I provided full details of the task via our Virtual Learning Environment and created a ten-page booklet with full step-by-step instructions for setting up and editing a WordPress blog. I also scheduled a two-hour training session in an IT suite which provided an opportunity for me to deliver live step-by-step tuition and ensure that all students attending had created their own blog prior to the start of the module. In both modules I opted for solo student blogs rather than collaborative efforts (see previous post for discussion on different options).

Students in both modules appeared to readily embrace this new form of assessment and seemed to engage well with it. However, the results of introducing blogs into the modules, and the grades achieved by students, could not have been more contrasting; as will be revealed in the next two posts.

Blogging #5 – types of blogging assignments

For most people, a blog is essentially their own demarcated space on the internet where, at any time, they can freely post their ideas and comments about anything that interests them, for anyone else to read and comment upon. Because each post is date-stamped and, one by one, they develop into a long list in reverse chronological order as each new post is made, blogs are often considered to be little more than an online diary or journal; and to some extent, for many people, that is what they are.

However, at their most basic level a blog is, essentially, a tool and platform for online publishing and, to all intents and purposes, they are more or less a ready-made website into which the user can deposit their own content without having to first design or create the site itself. In fact, millions of websites are now underpinned by WordPress software but they do not, in any way, resemble the traditional journal format of a blog.

A blog is also a place for interactivity and interaction, where people can publish their content individually, collectively or collaboratively and where they can also comment upon and enter into dialogue about the published content. So, before creating and setting a blog assignment, you will need to think about how you want your students to use the platform, what you want them to get out of the process and, to some extent, how you want to assess it.

Let’s start with perhaps the most basic form of assignment; each student individually creating their own blog, with their own content over the course of the module.

This might take the form of a weekly journal in which students continue or develop seminar discussions or perhaps respond to a question set by the tutor. Individual student blogs can also be used in the same way as a scrapbook might once have been used and, week by week, students might collect relevant material and post it on their blog along with their own discussion and analysis of it in relation to the themes of the module. Individual student blogs are good because they encourage independent and creative learning and investigation and they represent a space where, within stipulated boundaries, students can formulate and explore their own pathways through the subject.

Individual blogs also have good potential for being very reflective and one of the benefits of using a blog is that each post is archived and students can read back and evaluate ideas which they previously put forward. This means that blog posts can be quite speculative in nature and students can be encouraged to put forward their initial responses to an issue with the knowledge that they can revisit and rethink those ideas at a later date. Individual student blogs are also quite easy to administer and to grade as each blog relates solely to the work of one student.

Another way in which bogging can be used as a summative assignment is to create a single blog and subscribe all the module students as ‘authors’ (in WordPress) so that they can all post their ideas to the same blog.

The lecturer, using the role of ‘administrator’, maintains the overall blog and can also make posts of their own or comment upon others. This type of blog is excellent for creating a collective resource of student ideas and responses to the module topics and it also encourages students to read and respond to the work of others when composing their own. Over the course of the module, the single blog builds into a collective resource far in excess of anything that one student alone could create and it also allows students to build upon foundations laid by other students and learn from their peers as well as the module tutor.

This type of assignment can be more difficult to administer and involves subscribing each student to the blog as well as ensuring that work is being undertaken collectively rather than being plagiarised. If this is a concern, then students could be subscribed as ‘contributors’ rather than ‘authors’ which means they can write and edit their own posts in draft format but they must be approved and published by an ‘editor’ or ‘administrator’ before they appear on the site. This means a lot more work for the person authorising the posts but it does perhaps also provide opportunities for a peer evaluation element by making some students editors.

These blogs can also be more difficult to grade because they become a collective piece of work which may, in the end, represent more than the sum of its parts and working out the proportionate contribution of each student to that end product may be complicated and not simply a question of how many posts they have made or the number of words contributed. That said, issues with collective or group assignments have been addressed and overcome in more traditional classroom based activities so similar protocols can be applied in the case of collectively created blogs.

In addition to collective composition, blogs can be used to stimulate a closer collaboration between students.

By dividing them into smaller groups within a module and getting them to work as a team to create their own collaborative blog; perhaps getting each group to work on a different topic or element in the module so that, overall, the blogs cover all the module content. These types of projects are an excellent middle ground between the individual and the collective assignment because they encourage collaboration between the students but they are much easier to administer and keep track of than one large collective blog.

In fact, an additional benefit of collaborative blogs is that the students themselves can be required, as part of the assignment, to elect an administrator to manage their group’s site and perhaps one or two editors to act as moderators and ensure, for example, that content is not being duplicated across posts. In this way, small group blogs can be used to foster collaboration and produce module-specific coursework, but they also acclimatise students to processes and procedures of managing and maintaining collaborative projects; a very valuable set of transferable skills. As with a collective blog, there are similar issues with the potential for plagiarism and the complexity of grading collaborative work but these are no different to any group work and most departments have some form of assessment structure or criteria for such work (and if not, create one!).

All of these types of assignment involve students as creators and publishers of content but this overlooks another very important collectively element relating to blogs and that is the ability of people to post comments in reaction to other posts or to other comments made about posts (discussed later). However, if you choose to do this, make sure that you have suitable assessment criteria that take this into account when marking or else you will not be able to reward (or sanction) students who do, or do not, comment on the work of others or respond to comments made about theirs.

Before moving on to discuss further practical elements of setting up and using blogs, it might be useful to see, through a case study, how they can work in practice.

Blogging #4 – Sign up your students

This is not necessarily the place to go into the ins and outs of signing up for a WordPress account; it is really very straightforward and there is lots of advice and guidance online to assist with that.However, there are a few things to take into consideration if you intend to use blogs as pieces of formal assessed student coursework.

It is vitally important that you can identify which blog belongs to which student because, outside of the Virtual Learning Environment, there is nothing intrinsically to link the blog to the student as there would be with other forms of coursework. Also, if you intend to include ‘commenting on other people’s posts’ as part of the grading criteria for the blog then it is equally important that you can identify who is commenting.

When signing up for a WordPress.com account, users are asked to provide a username and an e-mail address and one way of ensuring that you can identify which of your students the blog belongs to is to ask them to use their university IT username that they would normally use to log into the VLE. This will be information which is unique to them but also something which usually forms part of their university e-mail address or which is listed in their student record so if there is any doubt as to who they are it can be checked and verified. Likewise, asking your students use their university e-mail address when signing up to WordPress ensures that their account stays linked to their student identity. The username that the student chooses will then form part of the URL for their WordPress blog and it is then very easy to identify, from the URL, which blog belongs to which student.

It may be that some of your students are already blogging and may already have a WordPress.com account under a different name or an account with another provider which they ask if they can use for the assignment. If this is the case, I would recommend that you still ask them to set up the new account with the university credentials as this keeps everything linked together and prevents any mistakes or misunderstandings about whose blog is whose or the correct address to access it. Also, keeping everyone using the same platform means that you only need to create and circulate one set of instructions on how to use the platform rather than different sets for different platforms and it is easier for people to follow each other’s blogs if they are on the same platform.

A further benefit of asking all your students to sign up to WordPress individually using an account which is linked to their university ID is that they can then have multiple blogs under that account, so if other modules or courses or departments in the university are also employing blogs as a form of assessment, the student can use their standard username and simply add the module code or similar to create a new blog for a new module.

So, for example, my student may be called John Smith and their university IT username might be ‘jsmit001’. They set up their WordPress account using this as their username and that ties the account to their university identity and gives them a blog URL of jsmit001.wordpress.com which they use for my module. Then, perhaps in the following term, they take a different module which also includes a blog as a form of assessment in which case they simply create a new blog in the same account and, for example, add the initials of the module title to the URL for the new blog, which might be something like jsmith001LB.wordpress.com.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t entirely matter exactly what ID you stipulate that your students use when setting up their accounts and different institutions use different formats as unique identifiers for students. What is vital, though, is that before you devise the assignment and ask students to set up their WordPress accounts, you give some thought to what you want them to use as a username so as to ensure that it is unique to the student so you can keep track of who is who throughout the process.

What I would also recommend is that once students have set up their blog you ask them to e-mail you the URL so you can check that it is correct and working ok. It is also important to stress to them that they will need to accurately provide the URL when submitting their work or else the marker (and second marker/moderator and the external examiner) won’t be able to access it to grade it.

So, now you have all your students set up with a blog account through which you can readily identify them; but what different types of assignments can you set them to do?