UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999


Teaching and Learning Conferences: Northumbria Assessment Conference and Improving Student Learning Conference

Mary Peat
Director, UniServe Science

These two conferences (the 4th Northumbria Assessment Conference in Newcastle, UK and the 7th Improving Student Learning Conference in York, UK) are designed to go together and there was a large overlap of delegates, especially the Australian contingent (12 at NASS; 19 at ISL). The Assessment Conference is run by the Centre for Advances in Higher Education at the University of Northumbria whilst the Improving Student Learning Conference is run by the Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University. They obviously communicate successfully with one another to provide a 'double program' that has little overlap; and both conferences attract delegates and presenters from all over the world.

The non-academic highlights of the Assessment Conference were the relatively small size (less than 100 delegates); the superb organisation by the conference team; the venue (in the country); and the weather!

The keynote speakers included David Boud from University of Technology, Sydney, who talked about the need to rethink our assessment practices especially lifelong assessment for the learning society of the future. He believes there will be major shifts in assessment practice - from teacher to student; from short term to long term; from fragmented to holistic; from academic to within context; and from 'knowing what' to 'knowing how'. He stressed that self-assessment is fundamental to learning and that formative assessment should be given more space in the curriculum with the focus on learning rather than performance.

Karen Hinett from the University of Bristol gave an impassioned keynote on the effect of emotion on learning and the role meta-cognition plays in helping students develop critical and evaluative skills. She argued for all of us to consider reducing the damaging impact of negative feedback by helping students develop self-assessment and reflection on their every task.

The final keynote was from Freda Tallantyne, Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Derby who talked about opening access through assessment. She pointed out that there was 30% participation in higher education in the UK with 40% in sight, and the continuing call to widen participation without reducing standards. She argued that for access to succeed, students need: regular formative assessment; to develop reflective and evaluative habits and skills; to have transparent outcomes and criteria to achieve them; and to be allowed to take a course as many times as they like until they get the grade they want. She argues that higher education should be more concerned about exit standards than entry standards. The conference ended with a debate: Assessment: a hindrance or a help to the learning society? - with Sally Brown from the new Institute for Learning and Teaching speaking for the retention of assessment and George Moerkerke from the Open University in the Netherlands arguing to do away with assessment. We voted to retain assessment in higher education for the time being! The debate featured in The Times Higher Education Supplement. The next conference on assessment will be in 2001, whilst in 2000 the First Northumbria Creativity Conference will be held from 30th August - 1st September (

The Improving Student Learning Conference set out to explore the nature of the pedagogies of disciplines, the extent to which they are distinctive or generic, and the implications of this for improving student learning. A feature of the conference this year was the setting up of process groups, which met every day to discuss insights and issues and to share experiences. Not unexpectedly, at the end of the conference there was no consensus on the issues. Keynote speakers included Rob Pope from Oxford Brookes University who startled the audience by asking for total interactive participation throughout the 90 minutes while he explored the notion that learning is a fundamentally critical-creative activity - he was both loved and hated for the rest of the conference! Mary Huber from the Carnegie Foundation, USA gave a characteristically American-style keynote and discussed the reflections of the Carnegie Academy on the scholarship of teaching and learning. The non-academic highlight of this conference was having the conference dinner in the National Railway Museum in York, with drinks in the loco shed followed by dinner on the wide platform between the carriages in the carriage hall - train buffs - eat your heart out! Various Australian notables were seen having their photo taken in front of Stephenson's Rocket.

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UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999

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