The approach to encouraging students as partners captured by this case study focuses on a change to an assessment item in a 2nd year Development Studies topic. Closely aligned with humanist learning approaches the changes to assessment allows students to focus on their own areas of interest and encourages their engagement in academic discipline-specific skill-development.
In 2020, I taught the development studies topic INTR2100 Reimagining the Global South for the first time and determined that an assessment innovation was required. I was motivated to redesign topic assessment for two reasons. First, the topic had several small assessment items. In line with Flinders’ recommendations, I aimed to consolidate these into fewer, larger assessment items. Second, whilst topic assessment items had been designed to fulfill specific topic objectives, they did not directly develop competencies related to the field of development itself. I knew that this topic would include several later-year and final-year students who would shortly be embarking upon their professional pathways. For this reason, I wanted to design an assessment item that would develop competencies relevant to development practice.
INTR2100 Reimagining the Global South is a small, later-year option topic that attracts students with a specific interest in development issues. INTR2100 is an option topic in the Bachelor of International Relations and Political Science (BIRPS). The topic typically has an enrolment of about 30 students, attracting those in the second, third or fourth year of their degree. It is not available to first-year students. Given that INTR2100 covers development studies content, and not a core topic to the BIRPS degree, it is typically taken by students with a specific interest in development issues. The topic is core for students undertaking a development major which further contributes to producing a student cohort with a specific interest in development.
In redesigning a major assessment item for INTR2100, I aimed to apply humanist learning principles to assessment design. The humanist learning approach considers education as a whole-of-person experience that encompasses both cognitive and affective dimensions (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner 2006). A humanist approach to learning acknowledges that academic competencies are important. However, alongside intellectual capability this approach suggests that if the learner is emotionally engaged with enthusiasm, interest, and a sense of purpose in their studies, the learning will ultimately be more effective.
In designing this specific assessment item, I drew on two central characteristics of effective learning suggested by a founding thinker of the humanist approach, Carl Rogers (2007). The first principle is that of personal involvement. This principle engages the affective dimension; it refers to the extent to which a learner feels personally engaged with the learning event. A learner may feel engaged because the educational experience is relatable to their own life experience or because it is a subject of particular interest and they therefore have personal motivation to carry out the educational task. The second principle is that of self-initiated discovery. This principle refers to the fact that where a sense of discovery on a learning journey is intrinsically generated, the educational experience will be more satisfying for the learner and better retained (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner 2006, 283; Rogers 2007).
Based on the motivation to facilitate students’ personal involvement and self-initiated discovery, I designed an assessment item that simulated a real-world Development Project Proposal. For this assessment item, students were required to assume the role of lead investigator and propose a unique development project that engaged development concepts and challenges discussed in the topic. The Development Project Proposal was designed to very closely simulate a real-world grant proposal for a development project – as per the templates typically provided by development agencies in calls for proposals.
Three elements of the Development Project Proposal design were intended to facilitate students’ personal involvement and self-initiated discovery. First, the assessment task required that students assume the role of lead investigator, thereby situating themselves as a development specialist and actively navigating the challenges and complexities of development from this perspective. This was expected to contribute to both personal involvement and self-initiated discovery. Second, the parameters of the Development Project Proposal were intentionally broad. The central parameter was that students were required to engage with material covered in the topic regarding development challenges when discussing their proposal. This was specified to ensure that the assessment item engaged academic discipline-specific skill-development as well as engaging the affective learning dimension. However, the project itself was entirely open to students’ own direction. Students could choose a country and an issue of interest to them personally and were encouraged to do so by the topic coordinator. This learner-directed approach was expected to enhance personal involvement of students with the assessment task.
Finally, the Development Project Proposal closely simulated a real-world brief. The Development Project Proposal was presented in the typical template of a real-world application form for a development grant. Such applications are a common mechanism to secure funding for projects in the development sector. The proposal sections were adjusted to integrate reference to specific topic material – such as core development concepts – however, beyond this, they aligned with the length and content of a typical development proposal. Research has shown that a simulated real-world task enhances student interest in and enthusiasm for a learning activity (Asal and Blake 2006). Therefore, this factor was expected to contribute to students’ personal involvement.
There are two categories of outcomes related to the implementation of this innovative assessment item: outcomes for students and outcomes for the educator. The first category of outcomes related to the learning task concern outcomes for students. The central question here is whether the assessment task achieved the outlined objectives of increasing students’ personal involvement and self-initiated discovery. Unfortunately, I did not engage in any systematic data collection concerning this question. Therefore, I have only subjective and circumstantial evidence from which to draw conclusions. Nevertheless, there are three factors that suggest that the learning task may have, at least partially, achieved these two objectives. First, supporting the outcome of personal involvement, almost all students appeared to approach the learning task in a personal way, selecting a development project of personal interest. Based on discussion in class and my own knowledge of students, it was clear that specific hobbies, countries, and issue-areas of personal interest were examined in depth in students’ proposals. A second factor supporting the generation of personal involvement was that several students voluntarily communicated to me verbally and in writing that they had particularly enjoyed this assessment task because of the broad scope and simulation of a real-world brief. Third, supporting the outcome of self-initiated discovery, students’ critical engagement in the proposal with development challenges likely to arise in their specific project – such as those regarding community engagement, power differentials and local buy-in – was particularly insightful, original and well-considered.
The second category of outcomes concerns the impact on myself, as educator and topic coordinator. We can consider teaching and learning as a reciprocal process in which the educator themselves is consistently improving their understanding and approach to teaching based on direct and in-direct student feedback to teaching practice (Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner 2006, 289). In this regard, did the implementation of this assessment innovation contribute to my own personal involvement and self-initiated discovery? Regarding the first factor, I genuinely enjoyed grading each and every Development Project Proposal. The unique and personal nature of the task meant that every proposal was fresh and original and engaged my interest. Regarding the second factor of self-initiated discovery, several times whilst grading the proposals I had moments of personal insight and new understanding regarding development challenges and the role of development in diverse contexts that I had not previously considered. This was a satisfying and surprising experience.
Jessica Genauer, College of Business, Government and Law
Asal, V, and Blake, E. L. (2006). Creating Simulations for Political Science Education. Journal of Political Science Education. 2(1), 1–18.
Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S and Baumgartner, L. M. (2006). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. (3rd ed). San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Rogers, C. (2007). Client Centered Therapy. (1st ed). London: Robinson.