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Assessment Innovation

Dynamic new approaches to teaching and learning in the School of Humanities

Lavinia Tang, Tan Yi xin and Divyata Raut

Jan 11, 2018 | Articles

EDUCATORS IN THE School of Humanities are developing some of the most creative and exciting approaches to learning by adopting an “assessment first” strategy. Rather than creating content to then be tested under exam conditions, our professors aim to enthuse and inspire students by focusing on the skills and abilities that they will develop upon completion of the course. The course content is then carefully curated to structure student learning in the achievement of these skills and this practice often leads to the development of new and exciting assessment methods.

The growth in innovative assessment methods coincides with the launch of NTU’s vision to develop and sustain a learning environment that foregrounds five core values. Dubbed the ‘5Cs’, this initiative is designed to imbue NTU graduates with the following attributes sought by Singapore employers: competency, creativity, civic-mindedness, character, and communication. Recognising that reliance on a limited range of assessment strategies may not adequately account for all of these attributes, our professors in the humanities are designing innovative new approaches to teaching and learning.

Teaching and learning thrives on forward momentum, on the sense that we are consistently improving, and this applies to students and educators alike. What follows is a selection of assessment innovations that we hope will inspire new pedagogical methods and help develop students’ skills in creativity, communication, and critical thinking and face up to future challenges.

Creative Projects

Creative projects offer students the opportunity to consider new ways to make their academic work accessible to a wider audience. They are invited to consider questions of form, become technological innovators, engage with civic society, and work together as a team. This assessment method also challenges students to reflect on the core values of their chosen discipline and to evaluate the merits and limitations of positions from other disciplines.

Assistant Professor Ivan Panović from the Linguistics and Multilingual Studies programme (LMS), teaches Delectable Tongues: Language and Food. The course’s final assignment is a creative project that requires students to present their academic findings using an interactive medium such as a video, skit or even podcast. Although the students’ topics have to be approved by Asst Prof. Panović , they are given leeway to decide exactly how they want to present their findings. “This approach lets students choose how they want to be assessed,” Asst Prof. Panović explains. By taking responsibility to present academic research in new ways, students demonstrate their creativity and enhance their analytic skills, preparing them for their future careers.

Asst Prof. Panović also teaches Language in Society, with an assessment that requires students to illustrate their findings on a poster, with ample images and descriptions. Subsequently, a poster exhibition is held in the corridors of the HSS Building, open to all students and professors in NTU. The audience can then vote for the best poster online. Showcasing their work to a cross-disciplinary audience encourages students to not only be creative with their work but also enhances their communication skills. Translating academic discourse into something that is accessible to a non-specialist audience helps enhance students’ knowledge and understanding of their chosen discipline while preparing them for interpersonal communication in their future workplaces.

Associate Professor Hallam Stevens (History) teaches Feasting and Fasting, which focuses on the origins of food and beverages. Assoc Prof. Stevens holds food tastings in class that pique students’ interest because they are able to engage all their five senses while learning about the history of food. For instance, making chocolate from scratch, tasting it and learning about it ensures that students benefit from a  lesson that is both practical and intellectually rigorous.

Students are invited to design a food menu that challenges them to gather and analyse historical sources while enhancing their design skills. Year 3 student, Elango Gopalan, thoroughly enjoyed this hands-on assessment. He revealed, “I went around Michelin star restaurants in Singapore to gain inspiration from their menus.”

The food menu assesses not only students’ research and presentation skills but their ability to work in a team and negotiate creative solutions. While students develop knowledge and understanding of the origins of food through their historical research, they are also tasked with presenting the content of the food menu in simple terms as this visual and creative assignment has to be clear for ‘patrons’ to understand.

Dr. Francesco Perono Cacciafoco (LMS) offers Word of Mouth: Transmission of Oral Culture and gives students the option to submit a poem in the form of an oral composition for their final assessment. Dr. Perono Cacciafoco encourages students to test the real life application of theories from the course by letting them use oral composition as a tool to assist in the formation of their written poem. Students experience the application of linguistic theories for themselves as it unfolds various and unique ways of using their poetic imagination.

In Codes from the Past, Dr. Perono Cacciafoco introduces students to the study of cryptograms, which are puzzle-like codes that reveal a hidden message. To encourage student participation, Dr. Perono Cacciafoco encourages students to submit original cryptographs; they are even given the choice to create their own language by coming up with an entirely new alphabet system and syntax. This form of assessment gives students the opportunity to directly experience the history of cryptograms as they try their hand at creating their own codes or languages. Niki Cassandra Eu Min, a student from the course notes: “By asking us create something, or to make your own discovery about something real and concrete, it forces you to learn more about the subject.” Two of the students’ cryptograms are so impressive that Dr. Perono Cacciafoco intends to publish them in the prestigious Journal of Cryptology.


Social Media

Students born after 1995 are part of a generation who have grown up alongside the smart phone and the ever-widening reach of social media. Although concerns have been raised about addiction, mental health, and harassment on social media, these platforms can also be forces for positive social engagement, a means of developing resilience, empathy and more open and prolific communication on public health issues.

Incorporating social media into teaching and learning has the benefit of reaching students through a medium with which they are intimately familiar. The formal constraints of the various platforms can also foster creative approaches to course design, necessitating experimentation with form and content that extends beyond the traditional classroom environment.

Winner of the John Cheung Social Media award (2015), Dr. Cui Feng from the Chinese programme is an advocate of using social media to enhance the learning experiences of students. He argues that creating a “new teaching environment with the application of IT propels students to be active in their learning, boosting their ability to gather and utilise knowledge and to solve societal challenges”.

Through the online student video response application, Recap, Dr. Cui invites students to post weekly video responses to a prescribed question as a mode of assessment. Students are also able to use this platform to consult Dr. Cui about the lessons and course material. As students are given the option to present their responses in either Mandarin or English, Recap provides them with additional opportunities to exercise the translation skills learnt in class.

Similarly, Asst Prof. Panović has incorporated an Instagram assignment into Delectable Tongues. He shares food photographs online — an activity that many students already practice — and invites them to connect the images with concepts taught in class. Students are required to contribute two Instagram photographs, with a caption that comments on the relationship between food and language, to the module’s main Instagram account (@delectable.tongues) where other students are able to view and respond to their favourite posts. Third year student, Thng Jing Wen, noted that the activity brought academic concepts into everyday life: “it was fun to hunt for food products with an interesting etymology while grocery shopping”.

On History of Information Technology, Assoc Prof. Stevens asks students to create a website to illustrate the history of particular technologies using either WordPress or Wix as their medium for website design. Through this process, students experience a variety of methods to organise information and they can incorporate elements such as images, videos, or diagrams of historical timelines. This flexibility in form allows for information to be presented in a more accessible manner. Assoc Prof. Stevens asserts that although the students were initially intimidated by the assignment due to their lack of experience with website design, many produced extremely creative websites.

Matching Prof Steven’s enthusiasm for online interaction is Assistant Professor Yong Wern Mei from the English programme. Asst Prof. Yong offers a course entitled Feminist Studies in which students are required to post a 300-word response to topics covered in class on the course blog. This blog assignment provides students with a platform for them to articulate their thoughts without being limited by the formal register of an essay. Since students are expected to comment on each other’s posts, the blog allows them to practice honing their arguments with the knowledge that their posts will be open to contention from other readers.

The blog posts also allow students to extend their discussions beyond the classroom and to speak about their own personal experiences. Moreover, students are able to analyse works which are not typically considered “academic”. One prominent submission Asst Prof. Yong remembers involved two students who conducted a social experiment; they created an online persona on an online dating website in order to experience first-hand how women were treated online.


Continuous Assessment

 Many faculty members in SoH have converted their modules to assess students continuously rather than with a final exam at the end. This is because students can put their ideas into practice as they go rather than cramming at the end, it highlights areas for improvement at an early stage, students can build on their existing knowledge, and it encourages high levels of knowledge retention. Continuous assessment offers the opportunity for innovative activities both inside and outside the classroom that test students on skills that will be of benefit to them in their future careers.

Assistant Professor Christopher Trigg from the English programme sets unorthodox assessments that stem from his desire to help students develop practical and transferable life skills as well as develop awareness of the socio-historical context of the various course texts.

In Early American Literature, Asst Prof. Trigg prescribes a re-visionary exercise to be completed in groups of four. Students are asked to research an author and to re-write one of his or her texts in a different style or genre. This allows students to gain valuable insight into print culture and they attain transferable skills through increased exposure to the practice of editing. This exercise also demonstrates that the purpose of a text can be illustrated not just through content, but also through the form, style, and presentation of the work.

Year 2 English student, Jesleen Soh, believes that Prof Trigg’s assignments “allowed her to understand literary works from a range of perspectives, including from that of a bookseller.”.

Asst Prof. Trigg also has a group exercise in Early Nineteenth Century Literature where students are tasked to compare different versions of the same text using online tools such as Juxta. This exercise encourages students to observe the process of story revisions in literature and to develop useful skills in interpretation.

Taking his lessons beyond the classroom is Assistant Professor Kevin Riordan from the English programme. In Advanced Drama, Asst Prof. Riordan aims to unpack the notion of prioritising the texts in the formal study of theatrical plays by putting the spotlight on other aspects such as its performativity and technicality. In his Anthropological Fieldwork assessment, students are asked to turn everyday observations into a theatrical act. Year 4 English student, Shereen Rafi states: “As a student taking a drama module, you have to learn how to study people and their behaviour, and I am glad the fieldwork forced me out of my comfort zone in that respect”.