Symposium reflections from Dr Laura da Costa

The Belonging through Assessment Symposium was held on Thursday 21 October, 2021.

Hosted by colleagues from University of the Arts London (UAL), Leeds Arts University (LAU) and Glasgow School of Art (GSA), the day featured interactive discussion, reflection and practice sharing, exploring perspectives and possibilities of assessment to nurture belonging as a way to address issues of social justice.

Introductions and keynote from Dr Jan McArthur

Following a welcome address by Vikki Hill (Educational Developer, UAL, project lead), Dr Jan McArthur gave a keynote entitled Assessment for Social Justice: why belonging matters. Jan, who is Senior Lecturer in Education and Social Justice at Lancaster University (UK), highlighted recent moves in assessment discourse to include honesty, joy, inclusion, compassion and belonging, amidst attempts to rethink the purposes of Higher Education (HE) for social justice. Arguing for the need to keep such terms challenging and transformative, Jan expressed belonging as relational when explored through the lens of mutual recognition, a notion arising from critical theory.

Conceptualised as such, assessment can, amongst other things, provide recognition of the self, legitimacy and individuality rather than conformity to belong. It can also represent an opportunity to contribute to society, enabling individuals to fulfil their own wellbeing. Jan linked artificial competitive grading systems with the idea that there are winners and losers in learning, with students avoiding making mistakes which are pivotal to the learning process, and restricting their understanding of their achievement (and often, sense of self-worth) to a grade rather than a critical appreciation of their own internally driven sense of achievement. Vitally, Jan posits, the latter is not contradictory to the purposes of certification.

Panel Session

In the following panel session, Professor Sam Broadhead (Head of Research, LAU), Dr Neil Currant (Educational Developer, UAL) and Peter Hughes (Academic Development Manager, LAU) explored benefits, drawbacks and recommendations regarding pass/fail assessment in arts higher education, drawing on experience with Level 4 undergraduate and Masters level courses and in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Benefits included a reduction in stress and anxiety, greater focus on process rather than product, the employment of internal mechanisms to evaluate the quality of work, and the establishment of a creative, risk-taking and collaborative culture centring learning as opposed to grade-chasing behaviours. Furthermore, this single point of discrimination can also support staff confidence in calibrating assessment practices and developing shared understanding.

Drawbacks included an increase in stress and anxiety albeit through unfamiliarity, students struggling to understand feedback without a grade, and demotivation through being unable to distinguish oneself from others or through “coasting” behaviour rather than development and growth. Recommendations for use included thinking strategically about when to employ pass/fail assessment, embedding it holistically considering teaching and learning but also wider institutional policies (e.g., grade penalties for late submission), supporting both staff and students to use it, consideration of parallel prize schemes for successful achievement, and evaluation of implementation.

Keynote from Dr Maha Bali

The afternoon began with a keynote from Dr Maha Bali (Associate Professor of Practice, American University in Cairo, Egypt), entitled Ecosystems for Designing with Compassion. Maha led attendees to contribute thoughts on how institutional constraints, and individuals at institutions, can hinder ability to foster belonging or compassion in practice. Echoing earlier presentations, she argued that institutional approaches can be changed to reconsider grades and grading, marking process and not products of learning, and competition amongst students and staff, but also that institutions can refocus to recognise academic integrity, mark quality of peer review rather than use peer review to mark work, and the possibility of rewarding students achieving their personal best.

Maha further urged attendees to consider supporting students to gain autonomy over the syllabus, how rules can be made flexible, and the ways in which current assessment practices promote white supremacy. Finally, in a particularly delightful analogy, Maha explored how multiple layers of holey Roumy Cheese, representing interventions such as culturally relevant pedagogy, universal design for learning, decolonising curricula, and trauma-informed pedagogy, can lead us closer to caring, equitable education for all students.  

Lightning Talks

Maha’s talk was followed by three lightning talks on belonging and assessment. The first was presented by Mo-Ling Chui (Course Leader, London College of Communication, UAL) exploring a Hackathon held remotely over four days involving students across all three years of the BA (Hons) Design Management course. Students used multiple online platforms as part of the process, including students interviewing each other and storyboarding prototypes, picking up, for example, on first year students who felt lost, and helping establish an internal system of caring in response. A panel of guest judges selected a winning group, but groups also assessed themselves with a grade and students provided anonymous informal feedback based on the prompts “I like”, “I wish”, and “I wonder”, ensuring no dominance of some students’ voices over others’, or tutors’ voices over students’.

Screenshot of online presentation. Shows presenter slides including photo and case study related to Judea Cheong, and brightly coloured squares saying 'curiosity,' 'Observation,' and 'empathy.'
Screenshot of Mo-Ling Chui’s online presentation

Michael Smith (Course Leader, LAU) reflected on how a sense of belonging is instilled on the BA (Hons) Animation course, from before enrolment as students actively choose to be part of an institution they have experienced through online content to on course ownership of what is screened at events and the Visiting Professionals invited to speak. Through promoting opportunities for students to converse and develop mutual respect, they are able to discuss each other’s work more productively in a comfortable and supportive environment, key when employing peer feedback. Michael also recommended managing students’ expectations around the numerous pressures they face, including avoidance of experimentation, play and risk-taking for fear of failure, uncertainty about the future and unrealistic industry demands, which all impact on their coursework and ultimately their experience of assessment.

Screenshot of online presentation slide. Pale pink screen, with 'Belonging' written at the top, then an image of 4 brightly coloured cartoon characters having a group hug.
Screenshot from Michael Smith’s online lightning talk

Janine Francois (Co-Course Leader, Central St Martins, UAL) highlighted that while her BA (Hons) Culture, Criticism and Creation focuses on cultural production in its widest format, the assessment practices have prioritised the written word as the academically rigorous approach. Students have recently been encouraged to consider knowledge production in contemporary formats, such as through storytelling and video essays, in acknowledgment of how underrepresented students’ knowledge systems and ways of cultural production are often excluded and seen as less. Creating and reflecting on the creating are equal processes in the final outcome of the assessment, capturing how the process has felt to students. The course team are keen to explore if students now feel more confident bringing their whole self into their assessment and that they will be assessed fairly. 

Professor Sheila Gaffney (Director of Undergraduate Studies, LAU) and Nina Spencer (Deputy Registrar, LAU) then introduced the Creative Arts Learning Model (CALM). Designed with Dr Paul Kleiman, CALM was borne from a fundamental review of learning, teaching and assessment as Leeds Arts University was granted taught degree awarding powers, in an effort to create an assessment model fit for creative purpose. Rather than predicting the material conditions of the submission, the model focuses on the performance of learning – what students have learnt and how it can be measured against the learning outcomes. This approach draws on assessment for learning instead of seeing assessment as a bolt on, and minimises the assessment burden for staff and students. Focus groups with staff and students have reflected that CALM provides the opportunity for students to make their own decisions about what to submit and the time and space to experiment and play. All courses have now adopted CALM during their periodic review processes, with specific information and training for staff, and the university is keen to explore staff and students’ interpretations of how the model is working across the board.

Student panel

A student panel of Simbi Juwon-Sulaiman (Graphic Communication, Central St Martins, UAL) and Amina Akhmedova (Fine Art, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL) then provided an insight into their experiences of assessment in the creative arts. Juwon-Sulaiman referenced teachers over-politicisation of including culture and black models in a portfolio, where these were present as a reflection of the student’s lived experience, but also concerns that those assessing portfolios may be uncomfortable commenting on work for fear of saying something wrong, with the consequence that they do not comment at all. Amina commented on the impact of online learning and a lesser sense of community on the quality of the crit process, suggesting this as a key area students can be scaffolded to ensure peer assessment helps improve practice. In terms of making assessment more compassionate, the students discussed the importance of tutors who understand work and are able to suggest ways students can improve it, of fostering emotional, personal connections, and feeling empowered as a student to communicate where tutor feedback itself can be improved.

Following the symposium, the project team has made the video recordings available for those unable to attend on the day. The themes have also fed into continued project discussions, and will inform three research projects focused on grading, the whole self, and feedback.