Threshold exams to promote learning and assurance of learning

Swinburne University of Technology
Publication Type:
Conference Proceeding
Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Conference for the Australasian Association for Engineering Education - The Profession of Engineering Education: Advancing Teaching, Research and Careers, 2012, pp. 1 - 10
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BACKGROUND Formal examinations are often used in engineering classes as the tool to evaluate student learning. These exams are often high stakes assessment tasks and provide no opportunity for feed-forward. Despite academic claims that all topics in their subject are requisite material, students are regularly able to pass these assessment tasks with unsatisfactory, and perhaps even no capacity to demonstrate learning in some topics. Furthermore, while undertaking the exam often highlights to students their learning deficiencies, it typically has no impact on their learning as they rarely receive feedback other than a mark or grade and there is no further opportunity to address these learning gaps. This paper reports on the impact of a two-staged examination process on both student learning and assurance of that learning. PURPOSE The aim of the staged examination process was to improve confidence that students had satisfactory knowledge in all requisite subject topics and to test its capacity to be learning-oriented in that it provides improved opportunities for students to learn while simultaneously increasing the level of learning assurance. DESIGN/METHOD The first stage of the process was an exam that covered all requisite subject topics. This exam consisted of multiple choice questions set at or just above the level of threshold learning outcomes. Students were required to score 80% on this exam to qualify to undertake the second part of the assessment process at a later date. Students used IFAT (Immediate Feedback Assessment Technique) cards for this stage to facilitate immediate feedback as to their strengths and weaknesses. The time between exams allowed students to review identified areas of weakness before attempting the second stage of the exam. Note: while not contributing to their final grade students who failed the first exam were also permitted to undertake the second exam as an opportunity to learn and as a means of evaluating the impact of the process. The second exam consisted of open-ended questions requiring students to explain their critical thinking and judgement used to arrive at their answer. Evaluation of the effectiveness of this process was based on a student survey, focus group discussions and an analysis of student examination scripts. RESULTS The threshold learning outcome exam was effective in improving assurance of learning in that students had to demonstrate satisfactory learning across topics to achieve the 80% required to âpassâ the exam. Furthermore, students reported that they used the opportunity between exams to address identified learning gaps, hence demonstrating the learning orientation and feed-forward capacity of the two stage process. However, the fact that two students who did not achieve the threshold level of 80% in the first exam were able to address their learning gaps and pass the second and harder exam suggests that an alternative to the 80% exclusion criteria should be considered. CONCLUSIONS The study demonstrated that a two staged examination process improved confidence in assurance of learning while providing students with an opportunity to first identify and subsequently reduce learning gaps. However, the fact that some students who failed the threshold exam demonstrated significant improvement in their understanding in the second exam suggests that more research is needed to both understand the impact of and improve the benefits from this activity.
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