Centre for Distance Learning, Room Q203, Quinn School of Business, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
This case study is based on the assessment strategies used for the skills development module, Induction and Returning to Learning, on the Diploma in Business at University College Dublin. The Induction and Returning to Learning module is the first of three skills development modules that students undertake. Many of the students are returning to education after a long number of years and study skills development is an intrinsic dimension of the programme. The other two of this ‘suite of skills’ modules, Developing Learning Competencies and Developing Communication Competencies, are delivered in the second semester of first and second year respectively. While these modules are part of a programme delivered by distance learning, the assessment strategies are transferable to more traditional programmes and would be of benefit to 1st year undergraduate students in particular.
In August 2005, the Induction and Returning to Learning module commenced a number of weeks in advance of the first block release session to allow students time to prepare their first class, to meet as a group and to begin working on their study skills development. For this module, each student received a comprehensive study guide and a copy of the textbook Managing Your Learning at University. In August 2006, the students had two days of induction sessions and activities and an additional three sessions were held in September, October and November.
It should be noted that distance learning is defined as:
… those forms of education in which organized learning opportunities are usually provided through a technical media to learners who normally study individually, and removed from the teacher in both space and time.
—(Jarvis, 2004, p. 219).
This programme does not conform to this generic definition, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, it is a blended approach to teaching and learning, i.e., a combination of limited attendance, coupled with home study, supported by materials specifically written for each module. No emphasis is placed on technical media, however, students can successfully complete the programme with the use of technology as an additional source of support. Secondly, while students are studying at a distance, they are not ‘removed’ from the tutor as there is a comprehensive support system in place. A daily academic support system is available in the form of a personal tutor who addresses any questions concerning academic and administrative matters including guidance on study skills development. As the tutor provides guidance on all modules on the programme, s/he is in a unique position to integrate study skills development into all aspects and modules. This also provides the tutor with the opportunity to identify and address key individual strengths and weaknesses.
This module was designed for mature students returning to education on a part-time, distance-learning basis. It is designed to facilitate their learning of the essential tools and techniques necessary to complete the programme and is designed to work in tandem with the other modules which they are undertaking (e.g., Principles of Management). Among the areas covered in this module are:
At the end of the modules, students will:
This module was examined by four assessment submissions; each assessment was allocated 25% of the module. In terms of the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), the module was worth 5 ECTS. The assessment submission dates were strategically scheduled in the semester to allow students to maximise their learning. For example, Submission 3 (the essay plan) was sent in three weeks before the second assignment for Principles of Management so that students could receive feedback on the plan in advance of the Principles of Management submission deadline. The assessment topics were selected to deliberately encourage students to focus on the key skills of essay writing, note-taking and examination technique. The students were invited to handwrite each submission; the rationale for this was to assist the staff in detecting any students who may have a learning or writing difficulty e.g., dyslexia.
The individual assessment submissions are detailed in the following subsections.
An essay (approximately 1,500 words) on returning to education and studying at a distance, which displayed the academic writing conventions covered in the module. This allowed the students to attempt an academic writing style on a subject that they had tacit knowledge of. Some of the criteria for the grading of this submission included the demonstration of succinct, fluent writing, the ability to develop an argument and provide structure to content, and finally, the ability to be analytical and objective.
A sample of the notes taken for a topic from either of their other subjects, i.e., Principles of Management or Introduction to Human Resource Management. This was designed to encourage students to try to take notes in a different manner and to explore their own learning style. For this submission, students submitted examples of mind maps and spider diagrams.
An essay plan that would be used for the next assignment on either of the other two modules of that semester. This assignment was used to demonstrate the conventions of planning and researching an assignment and to feed directly into the other modules.
A sample examination question for either of the two other modules of the semester. Examinations are frequently a phenomenon that is particularly daunting to this cohort of students. Submitting a sample examination question assisted students with their examination preparation; a number of weeks before the actual examination they received feedback, in terms of the structure and approach that they had adopted. The sample examination question was of particular use to the students for examination revision.
The opportunity to sit a mock examination was also made available to the students and was well attended.
The assessment methods used on this module were very useful in proactively encouraging the students to develop their study techniques. The provision of timely summative and formative feedback allowed the students to develop their skills over the semester and to apply them to the other modules that they were undertaking. It also helped to overcome the ‘schism’ experienced by students in 1st year in terms of the transition to higher education.
The module had a positive impact on the level of confidence of the students and has extended the period of induction for each student. This has already had a positive affect on the retention levels in the 1st year of the programme. In addition, the other modules have benefited from this module as the level of academic writing, materials sourced and referencing, etc., is much stronger than what is usually anticipated from a 1st year cohort.
The assessment methods were time consuming and demanding on resources within the unit but were invaluable in tracking the progress of a student and in identifying the individual strengths and weaknesses of the students.
The module gave a structure to the development of skills and encouraged students to proactively engage in their own development. The module was particularly well received by the students, indeed, some students commented that it was on the basis of the skills development modules which they had undertaken this particular diploma and degree programme (see Appendix A: Sample of Student Comments on Module and Assessment).
The circulation of marking criteria to the students was invaluable for the assessment of each submission and was of great use with the more subjective assessments, such as, note-taking. For the next offering of the module, the use of a reflective journal, as an assessment method, is being considered as an alternative to one of the other assessment methods.
The skills development modules are highly transferable to a number of other programmes. The methods of assessment are of particular use to a mature student cohort but the development of academic writing, in particular, is a skill that can apply to most disciplines in the humanities and business areas and would also be of benefit to traditional programmes. The key to the success of such a module is to align it with other modules undertaken during the same study period. Otherwise, there is a danger that it is viewed as a stand-alone module and that the true value of such a module is not realised for the student.
This module was hugely beneficial with other modules and one of the reasons that attracted me to this programme.
Definitely worthwhile having this on the course—I would have been lost without it.
Great help to get students back into study mindset and develop skills for learning.
I really felt that it was great to do this course to get one into the proper frame of mind to approach study and assignments. The mock examination was invaluable.
This course proved to be very useful in preparing for the other modules. The concept is very beneficial to one participating in a study programme after a prolonged absence. The course provided the tools to fulfil the requirements of other subjects.