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You have been teaching, but what have you been assessing? Can assessment also be about teaching? How do you know students have learned?

It is easy to forget that instead of being separate processes, teaching and assessment have a close relationship – they complement one another and comprise a holistic educational process. COVID-19 has prompted an increase in online interactions with our students. As a result, many educators have had to adjust their teaching and assessment strategies. In this article, we explore online activity-based assessment to support teaching and learning.

Assessment and Feedback

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of distance learning and emergency remote teaching during COVID-19 has been the aspect of assessment. In addition to putting your course materials online, you may have been anxious to confirm what students know, and demonstrate whether or not they have met curriculum outcomes. In other words your focus may have been on assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning. We have heard of cases, for example, where students have been allowed back onto campus to do exams, with little or no support for learning in preparation for those exams. It is certainly not fair, reliable, or valid assessment practice to expect students to come and write an exam when they have not had the opportunity and support to work through the activities and content leading up to that exam. Some institutions have managed to implement some form of online learning. Often, however, this has taken the form of asking students to read a textbook and submit an assignment. This is not necessarily very helpful for students struggling in this environment.  

If learning is reduced and less meaningful, what are you assessing?

Stop worrying about testing and start thinking about learning

In a post on Inside Higher Ed, in response to the pandemic, Jody Greene writes:

'By attempting to replicate in-person assessments in online settings, we fail to recognize that a change of medium may require a change of design. Especially if your instruction is interrupted close to the time of finals … don’t immediately jump to the conclusion that you can or should just “put the final exam online.” Sorting students and rigorously determining what deserves an A-minus as opposed to a B-plus may not be the most urgent business in the face of a global pandemic. … Think outside the parameters of your original assessments and ask the question, what can we do here that keeps learning happening? What if our first priority in an emergency is not completing testing but giving an opportunity for students to integrate and demonstrate their learning? ... Consult your campus disability resource center to make sure you maintain accessibility and equity.'

Challenge yourself to think about assessment differently. But how do you do that? There are two important considerations.

  • Learning is more important than assessing in this context.
  • Students need support and feedback

Support Learning

Give students something meaningful to do, preferably supported by communication with their peers and yourself as educator. Primarily the challenge is to find ways of introducing activities into the design of your materials. Rather than just reading text books, lecture notes, and PowerPoint presentations, ask students to critically engage with a reading, analyse case studies, create diagrams, tables or summaries, or conduct observations and interviews.

Students can also support each other. Encourage them to set up their own study groups, if necessary via WhatsApp or email. Build some kind of collaboration into the activities you set, creating and sharing the products of their studies, reflecting together and giving each other feedback.

Be there for students. Write your voice into the materials and engage in a written conversation with them. Ask questions and challenge students to respond in a variety of ways. Try to set times when students can contact you to ask questions and feel your presence, and clarify how they should do so. If you ask them to send you WhatsApp messages, make sure the messages come through, if you give them the option to email make sure you respond to the emails within the agreed turnaround time. It is frustrating for students to send messages or emails to which they never get responses.

Understand the value of formative assessment

Usually the focus is on summative assessment. This often takes the form of an assignment or a written exam after students have completed a section of work. Traditional summative assignments may be more challenging for online students, particularly. Online learning and assessment require more self-direction and self-motivation. Many students are still developing skills like time management. Most institutions have a Learning Management System (LMS), but, if your students only have intermittent access to the internet, they will not necessarily be able to do assessments online on your institution’s LMS.

Formative assessment is an activity, or set of activities, designed to support and enhance learning. It requires ongoing feedback to allow students to see their mistakes and fix them with guidance. This supports cognitive development. Once you have integrated activities into students’ learning, you have already begun to shift the focus to more formative kinds of assessment. An activity such as a quiz can be designed in a way that students engage with a base reading, do the quiz alone, and then compare their thinking with the feedback you provide. Provide written commentary on the activities against which students can check their own understanding. This can be followed up with a conversation between students about their responses. In this way, there is individual study, self-assessment, peer collaboration and formative assessment all built into one activity. This is learning and assessment.

As an exercise for yourself, consider each of the following statements. Are they true or false, in your view?

Note: Scroll down within the block below to complete all eight questions

 

 

All these strategies encourage communication, negotiation, and collaboration. Students use feedback they receive on their formative assessments to understand how well they have learned and where they need to focus to prepare for summative assessments. They are also motivated to continue engaging with the course.

Consider integrated summative assessment

In a context where students are not face to face with you or each other, and do not have a reliable connection to the internet, traditional summative assessments can be more challenging.

Summative assessment does not have to be an exam. The formative assessment activities that you have built into your design can form an important part of an integrated summative assessment strategy. Rather than a single exam, consider an assessment strategy that consists of four tasks that build up to a final product, for example, each building on the previous one, improving each time based on the feedback you have provided in between.

This site offers some ideas for thinking about alternative assessment strategies that might suit your context.

Use feedback to build communication and collaboration into assessment

Feedback is probably the most important aspect of assessment in any teaching and learning situation. Feedback can help a student to feel more ‘present’ in a course, and to feel the presence of others more strongly.

Provide feedback that is useful, timely and helps a student to reflect and assess themselves, and is useful for improvement. Encourage students to reflect on each others’ work by inviting comment or asking a question in a chat forum or WhatsApp group, or by sharing their work and requesting an evaluation against agreed criteria. The University of British Columbia in Canada has developed a series of workshops for online teaching. They talk about what makes feedback effective and describe ideas for communicating feedback online. For a useful article  giving ideas about the nature and extent of constructive feedback, go to the OER Africa website.

Additional Resources

For alternative assessment ideas in higher education:


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What's New

OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to the recently published book ‘Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory’. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education.

Research can have a transformative impact on any field, and distance education is no exception. It can, for example,  contribute to more effective use of new educational strategies, provide insights into technological advancements, and contribute to our understanding of the key successes and challenges in distance education delivery.

While the concept of distance education dates back more than a century, research in this area is relatively nascent when compared to the development of educational research in general.[1] The body of literature on the practice, influence, and impact of distance education is therefore limited, and even more so when considering developing world contexts. This, combined with the fact that distance education is experiencing significant shifts in terms of new demands and evolving technologies that provide new potential and pitfalls alike, mean that the recently published book Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory is a critical addition to the distance education research literature.

The book explores the reciprocal relationship between theory and practice in distance education, and OER Africa is honoured to have contributed two chapters to it. Edited by Dr Folake Ruth Aluko and Prof. Daniella Coetzee, the book is divided into two volumes which explore various themes:

Volume 1 focusses on the history, approaches and paradigms in distance education; building frameworks in distance education research; and praxis in this area.

Volume 2 moves on to address regional trends and gaps in distance education research; scholarship in this area; and quality assurance.

The two chapters that we contributed focus on the intersection of distance education and catalysing open education praxis, with each chapter approaching this intersection from a different angle. Each is outlined below.

Chapter 12 - Approaches To Continuing Professional Development For Open Education Practices In Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the importance of professional development on effective teaching and learning for university academics into sharp relief. Universities found themselves having to close their campuses and were unable to teach their students face-to-face. Universities in Africa resorted to various strategies to reach students, ranging from no teaching taking place, through emergency remote teaching (ERT) with some form of online teaching, to fully implemented e-learning. Whatever form the teaching has taken, academics have found that traditional lecturing has not been effective when implementing ERT or online teaching. Those who are experienced in adult pedagogies have been expressing the inadequacies of the lecture mode for many years, and the realities of the new forms of teaching required have brought such shortcomings to the fore. Several recent opinion pieces have expressed the need for continuing professional development (CPD) of academic staff, especially with respect to their teaching competence, arguing that it needs to be a central strategy within higher educational institutions (HEIs) around the world, supporting academics with digital teaching and communities of practice.

This chapter opens with a review of successful and innovative CPD models and approaches used in HEIs around the world. It examines recent CPD activities created by OER Africa and describes their development, piloting, and deployment, together with the implications the pilot findings have for ODL institutions and research in the field. 

Chapter 13 - Measuring implementation of UNESCO’s OER Recommendation: A possible framework

Drawing on a comprehensive literature review of best practice in OER measurement, as well as experience of working with UNESCO to support implementation of the Recommendation, this chapter presents an initial framework for the measurement of the effectiveness of the OER Recommendation and proposes indicators that regions, countries, and/or institutions could adopt or adapt to rigorously measure both how OER is used and its effectiveness for improving learning. Putting in place shared understandings of what counts as effectiveness for OER is critical to inform ongoing developments and improvements in the field. Such measures can also provide an evidence base that can be used for advocacy work around the importance of OER for quality open and distance learning.

Access both volumes below:

Volume 1

Volume 2


Related articles


[1] Zawacki-Richter and Naidu (2016) quoted in Aluko, F.R. and Coetzee, D. (2023). Chapter 1: Setting the scene – Why research distance education? In Does Distance Education in the Developing Context Need More Research? Building Practice into Theory. ESI Press:

 

Why might you want to publish your research in an open access journal? Open access journals use Creative Commons licences, which lay out the terms under which they can be used and distributed. Although most open access journals are highly respected and entirely legitimate, there are scores of journals that can be classified as ‘predatory’; they prey on the unwary who want to publish or to read a reliable article.

Introduction: Why is open access publishing beneficial to academics?

Why might you want to publish your research in an open access journal? Open access journals use Creative Commons licences, which lay out the terms under which they can be used and distributed.  All Creative Commons licences require full attribution.  Open access can benefit scholars because wider access to their research, enhances visibility and citations.[1]

Figure 1 shows some of the possible benefits of OA publishing, many of which are relevant to researchers around the world, including those in Africa.

Figure 1: Benefits of open access publishing

What are predatory journals?

Most open access journals are highly respected and entirely legitimate. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) lists more than 20,000 journals, many without an author processing fee:

Figure 2: DOAJ coverage[2]

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in South Africa includes the DOAJ journals amongst its list of accredited journals. Academics, researchers, and librarians are sure to find a reliable open access journal on the DOAJ database or any of the others that DHET lists.[3]

Even so, there are scores of journals that can be classified as ‘predatory’; they prey on the unwary who want to publish or to read a reliable article.

What is a predatory journal?  In 2019, a group of legal experts and publishers agreed on this definition:

"Predatory journals and publishers are entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by false or misleading information, deviation from best editorial and publication practices, a lack of transparency, and/or the use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices."

Though it might seem straightforward, there are so many forms of predatory practices that this group of specialists had trouble agreeing on a definition to describe how predation manifests itself.[4]

Experts [5] believe that there are now more than 15,000 predatory journals, which promise:

  • Peer review with a fast turnaround time.
  • Low author processing fees—low in comparison to some of the top tier journals, but high in terms of what authors get for their money.
  • Online publication and visibility.
  • Indexing in platforms such as Scopus and Web of Science.

Figure 3: How to spot a predatory journal[6]

OER Africa has a free online tutorial on open access publishing, which includes suggestions on how to verify a journal’s legitimacy.[7] There is also a discussion in Open Knowledge Primer for African Universities on the ways in which DOAJ tries to ensure that the journals in its database are legitimate.[8]

All researchers are under pressure to publish to keep their jobs and become eligible for promotion. The pressure on African scholars is increased because they cannot afford the high publication fees some journals charge, and some may not be familiar with the steps necessary to evaluate journals.

Two researchers are quoted in a 2022 article in the Africa Edition of University World News to illustrate the dilemmas facing African scientists who must publish but have neither the funds to pay the APC costs of top-tier journals nor the knowhow to discern the legitimate from the predatory.[9]

One scientist, Euclides Sacomboio of Agostinho Neto University in Angola, had two articles published in disreputable journals. His preference would have been high-impact journals, but, as he told University World News:

"I earn US$500, and the article processing fee in reputable journals is about US$2,180. Where do I get the money without any support?"

Sacomboio added:

"To me, it was important to share my data. Worse, it was difficult to choose [where to publish] because some of these journals we call predatory have peer review processes."

The second scientist, Moses Samje of the University of Bamenda, Cameroon and a member of the African Academy of Sciences Chapter of Affiliates, was also taken in—this time because the journal’s focus was on research like his and because of the journal’s allegedly high impact factor. Samje said:

"The impact factor was quite attractive. It was too good to be true … We had to try and we submitted a paper and, in the space of 24 hours, they [the publishers] asked for the processing charge, which was getting way more affordable. In less than 48 hours, we received an e-mail [saying] our paper was online. I was quite excited."

Samje subsequently went online and discovered that the journal’s peer review process was not as it seemed; he believes that the journal is a sham.

‘Plagiarism, fraud, and predatory publishing’

The noted bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, wrote those words in 2015 and called predatory journals ‘polluting journals.’[10]

Although the points in figure 3 elucidate the major ways to identify a predatory journal, there are two additional strategies they employ. Predatory journals are noted for accepting plagiarized articles and those that have already been published elsewhere. Even though predatory journals may report that they check for plagiarism, they typically don’t.

A 2018 blog post in the Indian newsletter, The Wire, succinctly described the situation in India and gave examples. The authors wrote:[11]

"Fake journals and plagiarism in academics go hand-in-hand. The lack of peer review and a complete absence of quality checking provides a safe channel to publish plagiarised articles. It is therefore no coincidence that along with fake journals, almost all academic fields have also seen an epidemic of plagiarism."

Sometimes plagiarism is intentional; other times it is the result of a researcher’s lack of expertise on what the concept means.

It isn’t always easy to find specific examples of plagiarism. Science Integrity Digest is one source of information. In 2020, it reported on a clear case of plagiarism in which the work of the OstrowskiLab was stolen and published in a predatory journal.[12] In 2019 in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, authors wrote about numerous instances of plagiarism in three predatory nursing journals.[13]

In South Africa, Professor Nicki Tiffin, a former researcher at the University of Cape Town (UCT) found that not only had she been plagiarized in a predatory journal, but her name had been stolen too.[14]

Unwary researchers are also trapped because some predatory journals have titles very similar to those of reputable journals. The three journals in the figure below all have similar titles but the similarity ends there.

What's in a name?

The first journal, Plant Physiology and Biochemistry is published by Elsevier, a reputable scientific publisher. The second, Journal of Plant Biochemistry and Physiology, is published by Longdom Press. Note it has phone numbers in Great Britain and in Spain and a registered address in Brussels. The journal is not included in any of the major indexing services that have quality controls, such as Web of Science, Scopus, or PubMed. The third, Journal of Plant Biochemistry & Physiology, is published by Omics, a publisher that was sued by the US Federal Trade Commission for predatory practices and ordered to pay a fine of more than $50 million.[15]

How to help researchers distinguish between the fake and the real

Above, we outlined several ways to determine legitimate journals from predatory ones. The two OER Africa publications we cited offer detailed help to students, researchers, and librarians.

Intellectual property rights, plagiarism, and referencing are taught in the Use of Libraries or embedded in the Use of English course, which is an integral part of the compulsory General Studies (GS) for first year students in Nigerian universities. However, the effect of the course on students has been found to be minimal.[16] Traditionally, African academic libraries run library orientation activities for new students. This window of opportunity could be widened to include provision of information packs or tutorials (online and physically) on information literacy, copyright, and plagiarism issues (including an introduction to plagiarism detecting software), as well as information about predatory journals.

Figure 4: AfLIA poster for use in libraries

Academic libraries can play an important role in raising awareness to the need to be wary of predatory practices.  But universities as a whole should be engaged in preventing staff and students from falling prey to these journals. They can list the open access journals for which academics associated with their institution can use for purposes of promotion, tenure, and contracts.  The DHET site discussed above would be a good place start.  Supervisors can advise their PhD students about conducting a literature review without including predatory journals.  Sarah Elaine Eaton of the University of Calgary wrote the following about the need of universities to support their students and academics against predation: [17]

"There are implications for mentors of graduate students and early-career stage academics, as well as for institutions as a whole. The issue of questionable conferences and publications is so complex that early-stage academics require support and mentorship to cultivate a deeper understanding of how to share their work in a credible way."

Dr. Eaton’s statement is valid around the world, particularly in circumstances such as Drs. Sacomboio and Samje described—insufficient funds to pay fees and insufficient guidance within the institution.


[1] See Sharing Africa’s knowledge through openly licensed publishing for more information on open access. https://www.oerafrica.org/content/sharing-africa’s-knowledge-through-openly-licensed-publishing

[3]See https://www.up.ac.za/news/post_3048195-the-department-of-higher-education-and-training-2022-accredited-journals-

[4]Grudniewicz, A., Moher, D., Cobey, K.D. et al. (2019). Predatory journals: no definition, no defence. Nature, Vol. 576: 210-212. Retrieved from https://media.nature.com/original/magazine-assets/d41586-019-03759-y/d41586-019-03759-y.pdf

[14] Simon, N. (2023). Protecting research integrity from predatory journals. University of Cape Town. Retrieved from https://www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2023-11-09-protecting-research-integrity-from-predatory-journals

[17] See Sarah Elaine Eaton’s Resource Guide Avoiding Predatory Journals and Questionable Conferences. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED579189.pdf

 

Education systems around the world have traditionally been characterized by closed knowledge systems, overly prescriptive curricula, narrow conceptions of success, and a failure to fully empower teachers as facilitators of learning. A recent paper by Neil Butcher & Associates argues that a key reason for these issues is that many education systems are inhibited by complex policy environments that, likely unintentionally, impede learning and create educational closure.

Image courtesy of Michael Anderson, Unsplash, Unsplash licence

Education systems around the world have traditionally been characterized by closed knowledge systems, overly prescriptive curricula, narrow conceptions of success and achievement, and a failure to fully empower teachers as facilitators of learning. This inhibits their ability to develop a full spectrum of human learning capabilities amongst learners, especially in their formative schooling years. A recently published paper by Neil Butcher & Associates (NBA) argues that, while there may be various reasons for these issues, one critical problem is that many education systems are inhibited by complex policy environments that, most likely unintentionally, impede meaningful learning and create educational closure.

Education policies often create new rules that accumulate over time, giving rise to inefficiencies and unnecessary constraints that do not support (and often obstruct) learner success. One manifestation of policy complexity within education systems is the growing granularization and rigidity of the formal national curriculum, which has led to the proclivity to use standardized testing and high-stakes examinations as a proxy for learner success. This complexity has also eroded autonomy for teachers, constraining what they can do in the classroom and increasing the tendency to ‘teach to the curriculum’ (or, worse even, to the examination). Standardized testing and high-stakes examinations have also increased anxiety and tension amongst learners, parents, and teachers, who perceive a false equivalence between test performance and success in later life.

The paper argues that despite the diverse nature of education systems around the world, many share a common problem of complex policy environments. Increased use of standardized testing models and resulting curriculum rigidity does not lead to better quality education but can have a deleterious effect on learner achievement. As complexity filters down into the classroom, another consequence is that the teachers who are tasked with delivering curricula are increasingly constrained and disempowered by these central policies. The consequences of this are far reaching as they emphasize rigidity and closure in knowledge acquisition, leaving little space for substantive learner-teacher engagement, contextual adaptation, and discovery.

In response to these challenges, we can use the principles of open learning as a tool to reflect on policy complexity in education systems, including the extent to which a policy environment is facilitating openness or promoting closure. A useful mechanism to tackle policy creep and ensure that education systems are geared toward a broader definition of learner success is to adopt and systematically implement the concept of openness within education systems, which begins at the policy level. Prioritizing openness offers significant opportunities for teachers and learners to reclaim what happens in the classroom and become more engaged members of society.

Integrating open learning principles into policy discourse would be a step forward in reducing unnecessary complexity and closure within education systems.