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Supporting learning autonomy and curriculum coverage in university teaching: three case studies of formative assessment

My thesis is now available at http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/51389/



This research investigates formative assessment at a UK research-intensive university,
considering the aims and effects of their deployment. The research spans three
academic disciplines broadly within the sciences and considers the influence of their
history and culture on the approaches taken.

It reports on three case studies originally chosen because of their innovative use of
technology in teaching and assessment methods. Each case included mid-term
summative assessments that were intended to have a formative function for the
students. A triangulation of research methods was used that included documentary
analysis, interviews and focus groups. Cultural historic activity theory was used to
interrogate the data that emerged from the research. Bourdieusian theory was also used
to understand and explain some of the findings.

The thesis explores commonly held ideas about what constitutes desirable learning
outcomes. It concludes that teaching and assessment practices do not always deliver on
their promises nor support their intended objectives. Even within innovative
educational methods it finds deeply rooted practices which fail to support the graduate
skill sets that the tutors are hoping to develop in their students. It suggests that
formative assessments which only reward curriculum coverage encourage narrow and
conformist thinking and such thinking is at odds with the behaviours we should be
developing within our educational environments.

However, this thesis also describes educational practices that do meet their primary
aims: to develop students’ learning autonomy whilst they cover the course curricula.
These practices are constructed around formative assessments that build community
within the student cohort, engage the students in authentic tasks requiring critical
reflection and give students a chance to develop expertise within niche areas. The thesis
suggests that these practices are applicable in all academic disciplines, independent of
the subject, and provides approaches to teaching and assessment that encourage
autonomous learning and develop high-level transferable skill sets. We all forget facts
and procedures over time, and so it is our students’ capacity to know that we must
develop within education.


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