The use of threshold exams to change student learning culture and provide assurance of learning

School of Engineering Macquarie University
Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
2017, pp. 706 - 714
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CONTEXT Despite their shortcomings formal examinations are often favoured as a means of achieving learning assurance as students undertake them on their own in a controlled environment. However, while formal exams may mostly ensure the integrity of a student’s submission the claim that they provide assurance of learning is less clear. Even if the questions in the exam validly assess the associated subject learning outcomes students are frequently able to pass (achieve 50%) with unsatisfactory, and perhaps even no capacity to demonstrate learning in some subject topic areas, even though they may be regarded as requisite. Furthermore, while undertaking these exams may highlight to students their learning deficiencies, there is often no opportunity for feed-forward assessments to motivate them to address these identified learning gaps. This paper reports on the impact of a threshold exam process on both student learning and assurance of that learning. PURPOSE What impact will threshold exams have on the way students behave and respond to the learning outcomes associated with a unit? APPROACH A large (>500 enrolments) multidisciplinary first year engineering subject was chosen for this study. Students were required to undertake a threshold exam in week 10 of a 13 week semester. The pass mark was set at 80%. Students who failed this threshold exam were invited to attend a workshop and sit a supplementary threshold exam at the end of the semester. This study used discussion forum posts, student surveys, tutorial discussions and analysis of exam results to investigate how student’s behaviour changed as a result of the threshold exam and the impact on their learning. RESULTS Despite many students having an objection to an 80% pass rate perceiving it as unfair, the threshold assessments had a significant impact on the way students approached their learning and engaged in their tutorials and other learning activities. CONCLUSIONS This study demonstrated the potential of a threshold examination process to improve confidence in assurance of learning. Many student who failed the initial threshold exam focused on mechanical level conceptualisations of learning which suggests long-term changes to their learning culture requires more scaffolding and adoption of such practices in more units of study.
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