Introduction to the team at Leeds Arts University

A photograph of Prof. Sam Broadhead. She is white, has red hair, is wearing glasses and is smiling.

Who are you and why is this project important to you?

I am Professor Samantha Broadhead, Head of Research, at Leeds Arts University. The project’s themes are pertinent to my research interests in widening participation in arts education (particularly mature students). Early on during own learning journey I became aware of the ‘assessment for learning’ approach promoted by Dylan Wiliam where he argues that assessment has the potential to enhance learning. In particular, assessment should enhance inclusive learning.  

Professor Gregson and I wrote  in our book, Practical Wisdom and Democratic Education, about the frustration and confusion some students (from a range of institutions) experienced when trying to understand assessment processes. This impacted on their sense of belonging as they believed other students understood the ‘rules of the game’ where as to them the language of assessment was mysterious and opaque. Assessment was part of a range of practices and beliefs that constructed mature students as a pedagogised ‘other’. The students’ narratives around assessment made me wonder about the unspoken and perhaps ‘taken for granted’  conventions that govern assessment in the arts. Some students understand these implicit forms of knowledge whereas others due to their previous educational journeys and social backgrounds may read and interpret  briefs and assignments in different ways.  What unexamined biases are we reproducing through our assessment practices that do not consider the varied backgrounds and cultures of our students? This resonates with the work of Basil Bernstein on visible and invisible pedagogies. The research has led me to believe that clear, explicit and carefully crafted briefs are crucial – good for all students – and continuous dialogue about the meanings of briefs (assessment literacy) should be part of the curriculum. 

Many students and particularly mature students have complex lives outside of education, they often manage their learning while being responsible for dependants (children or aging relatives).  Unexpected events can cause students to falter in their courses and assessment requirements can add to their stress. In our research some of the students felt they were misunderstood or not listened to when they asked for flexibility around assessment activities (for example rescheduling a presentation). They asked because they were trying manage a complex set of circumstances not because they trying to gain an advantage. The work we did suggested that deadlines and lines of communication should be clear and resolved in good time so students can plan their lives alongside  their education, however there should also be some flexibility accommodated by the regulations that consider the unpredictability  of life. Maybe some principals relating to quality assessment processes could introduce a compassionate and empathic aspect to regulation?  These principals could relate to  clarity, dialogue, communication, timeliness and flexibility in assessment policies and procedures?

 At the end of the project I hope to have discovered new points of view that could change my current perspective on assessment and I am open to seeing what happens.  

Why is this project important to Leeds Arts University?

Part of my role was to manage the new taught postgraduate culture that was emerging eight years ago at the University. This led to the  introduction of a pass/fail assessment process for postgraduate courses. My colleagues in the quality office have taken this innovation forward. This project will expand our understanding of the pass/fail approach and whether it could or should be applied to other cohorts.

This project will also contribute towards the University’s work in creating an inclusive learning experience for all students where they can thrive and succeed.

A photograph of Peter Hughes. A white man with a beard and glasses with fair hair standing in front of trees. Peter has a warm expression.

Who are you and why is this project important to you?

I am Peter Hughes, Academic Development Manager at Leeds Arts University where my focus is the enhancement of learning, teaching and assessment and advising on curriculum design and development across the university. Originally an academic in geography & environmental studies I shifted over to educational development roles mid-career.

I was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2002, principally for my work around assessment and education for sustainable development. My NTF work focused on the idea of “autonomous learning zones” and this developed into involvement with a range of sector projects around reflective learning, personal development planning, eportfolios and student transitions. I’ve been increasingly engaged in work around inclusive curricula including a focus on autism and curriculum. I’m an autistic academic. 

This project presents an opportunity for me to delve further into assessment practices and their role in supporting student transition into, through and beyond university. Compassionate assessment that supports each student’s learning journey and personal growth is a key part of an inclusive curriculum. For me, flexibility and variety in assessment, and briefs which allow the opportunity for students to focus on special interests are important, along with anything that demystifies and humanises the process. 

Photograph of Nina Spencer - a white woman with blonde hair wearing a blue hoodie and smiling.

Who are you and why is this project important to you?

I am Nina Spencer, Deputy Academic Registrar (Quality Assurance & Standards) at Leeds Arts University. I have worked in Higher Education for over 20 years – starting off in administration moving through operations, project management before ending up in quality. I have worked with institutions varying from big universities to private for-profit organisations and small specialist institutions. 

As the person responsible for quality assurance, I am the keeper of the rules, our Academic Regulations (the Regulations). We all need rules including in higher education. A university is a complex community and, like any community, we needregulations and policies to successfully co-exist. This project is important to me as I am keen to make sure our Regulations are there to support our students, not to catch them out, including in their transition into higher education, in their progression through their studies, and beyond. I am interested to learn how our willingness to support our students individually compassionately can co-exist with Regulations that are consistent and equitable for all.

I would like to think that we have implemented many things here at Leeds Arts University over the years that support compassion in our assessment and one of the things we have made possible, partly through careful review and writing of our Regulations, is to introduce a Pass / Fail model. 

We received TDAP in 2016 when we could start writing our own regulations. And with that, in 2017, Leeds Arts University decided to move to a Pass/Fail model for all modules on all of our postgraduate courses. The rationale was that this would better support the practice-based nature of our Masters course and the postgraduate culture of the University and would allow students to concentrate on their practice, experimentation and risk-taking rather than chasing marks. The Pass/Fail model on postgraduate courses supports our vision of a collaborative as opposed to a competitive culture. The adoption of the Pass/Fail model on postgraduate courses has been positively received by students and staff.

This year, we also introduced Pass / Fail for our first year students. These students had already experienced significant disruption to their school and college studies following the lockdown in March 2020 and the continuing impact of the pandemic had meant that the transition to Higher Education learning had been more difficult for those entering their first year.  The aim of a Pass/Fail approach was to enable these students to focus on their learning, including their development of subject knowledge and transferable skills, and allowing for experimentation and risk-taking. The aim was also that the removal of a focus on grades would help the management of pressure and anxiety and by that support student wellbeing. The University is now in the process of evaluating and discussing next steps with the Pass/Fail approach for our first year students, for this next cohort of first year students in the first instance. We will be deliberating carefully before deciding how we proceed, with our students at the forefront of our minds. As part of our careful deliberations, we are looking at how we ensure students can develop effective assessment literacy in preparation for their second year, and we are looking at the feedback, ensuring this is meaningful and pertinent and in the spirit of feedforward.

Black and white photograph of Laura da Costa with dark hair and a a black jacket, smiling.

Who are you and why is this project important to you?

I am Dr Laura da Costa, Access and Participation Development Manager at Leeds Arts University. My background is in educational research, and all of my professional career has revolved around the topic of inequities in education.

I have evaluated programmes that aim to support students from underrepresented groups to participate in higher education, and also researched socioeconomic inequality at school (for example in rural and coastal areas), in participation in higher education, and in access to the professions. My current role focuses on the evaluation and monitoring, but also development, of the university’s progress against our Access and Participation Plan. Across these roles, I have been really interested in the stories we tell ourselves about our institutions and the often different stories the data tells. Do we really have equitable and inclusive institutional practices if a smaller proportion of our students from underrepresented groups are consistently awarded fewer first class and 2:1 degrees than their peers?

In terms of assessment, I have trained exam board staff in modern test theory, including Item Response Theory, the Rasch Model, used in the construction and evaluation of tests, and adaptive comparative judgment, a more holistic assessment approach. I have also been part of a comparative and international education project exploring what fair assessment means to inspectors, exam board officials, teachers, and students across Germany, Sweden and England. Across these projects, I have been really interested in how “we” define fairness and equity in assessment, and fairness for whom?

There has historically been greater focus on increasing the proportion of students from underrepresented groups participating in higher education, with a lot of discussion about how best to employ contextualised admissions processes. As the focus moves to the full student lifecycle, I am very interested in how we decolonise our curriculum and pedagogy and as part of this, how we interrogate and contextualise our assessment processes. For me, this project presents an opportunity to improve my and my institution’s understanding of how these aspects can work to meaningfully enhance the extent to which students from underrepresented groups feel like they belong in higher education and the creative arts world.

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