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Enabling learning through transforming assessments in higher education

How can we support students in the most appropriate way to help them perform better in their tertiary studies?

UOW College lecturer in computer science, Dr Pranit Anand, has a special interest in enabling learning by developing relevant and interesting assessment styles for higher education.

Not all students are able to effectively demonstrate the true capabilities through traditional assessments in higher education. For example, he believes traditional closed-book exams don’t elicit the best results in all students. His research looks at how students can learn and demonstrate their skills using a more practical application of knowledge.

A lecturer at the College since 2002, Pranit says his teaching philosophy is focused on giving students the best shot at getting into university and beyond.

In 2015, he did a PhD on developing self-regulatory study skills for first year university students. His research involved a trial using targeted SMS messages to students, offering personalised learning support by asking questions and making suggestions.

“I surveyed about 350 students to find out their unique learning needs. Different people were getting different types of text messages throughout the day based on their learning needs.

“I was then able to look at their academic performance data as well as their engagement in learning, which revealed a marked improvement,” he says.

Using the findings of his PhD, his subsequent research has taken an innovative, personalised and flexible approach towards enabling students to learn more effectively.

“It’s looking at different ways of creating assessment instruments, for example how can we create examinations that are open internet type, that is, students use the internet during examinations to solve a real problem, rather than just memorise facts and regurgitate them in an examination?

“It’s about trying to give opportunity to students that might not necessarily be really good at a traditional exam,” he shares.

Dr Pranit says his new approach allowing students to access to the whole internet when doing exams has had significant benefits.

“They don’t have to sit up until 3am the night before memorising everything,” he says. “I felt a closed book exam wasn’t testing their skills and knowledge and attitude, it was more about how good you were at memorising and regurgitating.

“Open book exams, for me, test problem solving. I reduce the number of questions and instead of asking them for example what a CPU is, I ask them how a CPU is used in this particular context. So they have to use Google and the internet to solve a problem. It’s done in the lab and the students love it,” he affirms.

Dr Anand is one of the first academics nationally to introduce an open internet exam and believes it teaches students to think more critically, while achieving better results.

“Rather than testing a student’s ability to remember keywords, how about we teach concepts and how to apply them.

“There was an improvement in the number of students who performed better - this was because the quality of the answers was much higher,” he reinforces.

Apart from open internet examinations, Dr Anand has also developed assessments where he gets students to collaborate with overseas institutions, to identify and develop solutions for real Non Government Organisations (NGOs).

“They develop real-life scenarios for an international Not for Profit organisation by working with other students located outside Australia,” he says.

Dr Anand says adapting his assessment methods has shown remarkable results - most notably the interest and engagement of students in the classroom.

“Often you give an assessment to the students and most of them attempt it in the last night or two,” he says. “With my assessments most of them start it on the first day and I can see that, because the following week they come to me with questions about it. That does not happen if they’re not engaged,” he affirms.

His observations indicate a higher level of engagement with the assessments when there is a personal connection to the work.

“In the case of working with NGOs where they work with overseas institutions, there’s an emotional connection. The students choose an NGO that they want to support and develop a solution for them, so there is that emotional engagement with the assessment, and because of that, I’m able to enhance their engagement,” he says.

Dr Anand says his teaching method expands beyond just how to use a particular computer program, by enhancing their ability to adapt to new concepts.

“Traditionally we would focus on the specific software students would need when they get to university; Excel, Word and PowerPoint predominantly – there was a focus on students being able to use these programs, but we all know software changes frequently, and the range is also increasingly rapidly.

“So rather than focus on individual competencies, I look at the concept of having a computing mindset. It is a different way of looking at computing teaching, particularly in the enabling education space. With a computing mindset, students are able to adapt and adopt new emerging technologies more effectively,” he says.

Dr Anand’s commitment to enhancing student learning by developing innovative assessments sees him playing an active role in supporting colleagues nationally and locally.

His approach has piqued the interest of academics around Australia where he has fielded enquiries from Edith Cowan University, University of South Australia and Charles Sturt University to adapt his methods.

Pranit leads a special interest group on assessments for the National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia, where he facilitates discussion and enables people to share assessment ideas.

At UOW, he also leads the WATTLE Hot Topic Group on Transforming Assessments in Higher Education and says it’s given him a good platform to engage with other academics across both the College and all of UOW’s Faculties, to promote a different way of looking at assessments.

“I’m passionate about assessments, all my teaching and learning revolves around assessments. I use them to motivate my students and to get them to learn ideas, concepts, attitudes and skills - so it plays a very important role in my courses that I teach,” Dr Anand says.

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