“It has blossomed into a strong and fruitful relationship, a partnership that works well. The HEA works with us to identify our needs, helps to articulate a plan to address our priorities, and then delivers.”
Dr Andrew Ireland, Executive Dean, University of Central Lancashire.
The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) is one of the UK’s largest academic institutions numbering almost 40,000 students and staff spread across a portfolio of approximately 700 courses. With a strong regional reputation as both a social and economic asset, the university also has a formidable international presence with academic partners across the globe, and in 2016 was placed in the top 3.7% of worldwide universities by the Centre for World University Rankings.
Towards the end of 2015 it became apparent that as the institution has evolved, an issue concerning assessment was increasingly coming to the fore. The high number of modular courses had created a scenario where students were, in effect, being over assessed with too much emphasis on the module instead of a holistic course-based student experience. Initially the institution set up an internal project to tackle the problem, looking (a) at reducing the number of formal summative assessments per module, and (b) running workshops aimed at academics, while also engaging some independent consultants to inject new perspectives. The project successfully reduced the number of summative assessments per module, introduced an important academic discussion about assessment, a more reflective approach, and the beginnings of a community of good practice. However, the project also identified a number of underlying and related issues surrounding assessment and course design. A broader, more overarching approach was necessary to address these issues and provide a supportive framework for academic best practice and excellence in course and assessment design. This is where the Higher Education Academy came in.
To (a) review the university’s assessment policy and practice against national benchmarks and best practice in the sector (b) build capacity for effective management and leadership of assessment to support and enact change (c) develop an extended college and programmatic view of effective assessment design, and (d) visualise ways of embedding principles of effective assessment design at programme level.
The HEA, under the direction of their Partnership Manager Philip Johnson together with Academic Lead Assessment and Feedback Sam Elkington, devised a bespoke Strategic Change Programme consisting of a three step approach aimed at tackling the assessment issues which had arisen:
- Step one - 'Workshop (Institution)' - involved HEA experts working with senior colleagues and academic support staff at UCLan to identify and understand the main issues and challenges associated with assessment and feedback in the context of recent changes in university regulation and external and internal drivers. This workshop was set against the wider backdrop of demonstrating excellence in teaching quality in the HE sector. It also reviewed institutional approval processes and regulations, aiming to make these more agile in the face of the need for continued innovation in assessment.
- Step two - 'Workshop Series (Faculty)' – focused on building capacity to manage and lead assessment in sustainable ways. Aimed at groups of senior staff (including heads of school and principal lecturers), this series of workshops looked at manageability and sustainability in assessment design, establishing a number of priorities based around questions such as (a) what are the challenges and issues at school level (b) what are the barriers to change, and (c) what are the programme level assessment needs at faculty level?
- Step three - 'Assesment Design (Programme Teams)' – involved a series of what are known as ‘assessment labs’ involving programme teams of up to 30 members of staff considering institutional and college priorities for assessment change. Each lab also encouraged staff to review the assessment landscape at programme level, while also agreeing a set of action points for the implementation of subsequent changes to programme assessment.
In addition the HEA evaluated the institution’s initial internal project into its assessment issues. “They pinpointed what the project had managed to achieve, put that into context, clarified what the university needed to do next, and how to operationalise it,” says Dr Antony Barron, Strategic Project Manager in Corporate Operations at the university. “Our overriding aim was to make sure we had a system in place where, once we had traction, we can continue to enact positive change that is embedded into the organisation. The HEA understood that right from the very beginning.”
The HEA’s Strategic Change Programme has proved to be very popular and effective at the University of Central Lancashire, to the extent that the HEA has been commissioned to continue working with the institution on an ongoing basis. “It’s not about dipping in and dipping out,” says Dr Barron. “It has evolved into a long standing relationship. There’s a feedback loop which continues throughout the whole process. Having consultants who speak the same language as the academics is a major plus point. There was an assumption in some areas that academics wouldn’t want to get involved, that they’d be too busy to engage. But that simply hasn’t been the case. True, there’s been a strong level of encouragement from the executive, but that is because this is a project that is owned by everyone, as assessment cuts to the very core of our academic endeavours. The engagement has been there along with extremely high levels of feedback.”
Current assessment practice at UCLan is now in line with the good practice in the sector, and is now developing rapidly into a model of best practice. Feedback from over 500 staff attending the initial project and subsequent HEA workshops consistently indicates a strong increase in both understanding and engagement with formative assessment. The concept of ‘top down’ course design has been fully embraced, together with how it can be incorporated into common working processes. Feedback also indicates how the workshops have helped in the management of assessment and course design, but that this needs to be supported by more follow-on work.
“Having already identified improving assessment as a key priority to supporting student outcomes, the University of Central Lancashire deserves praise for its proactive stance analysing areas where support is required and bringing in experts to help with staff development,” says Philip Johnson of the HEA. “The Higher Education Academy was, and indeed continues to be, delighted to partner with the university on this project which is having a real impact.”
“Potentially this ongoing relationship could last for years involving various amounts of attention at different times,” adds Deputy-Vice-Chancellor Lynne Livesey, on the partnership with the HEA. “For instance, we have invested in a Centre of Excellence in Learning and Teaching here through which we’d like to provide a HEA-type service on an operational day to day basis. That doesn’t mean we are looking to replace the HEA because such a set up would have to be reviewed on a regular basis, for instance to keep our internal resource upskilled. That would in all likelihood require HEA input and expertise, something we’d be delighted to utilise.”