A DISTRIBUTED SYSTEMS APPROACH TO UNDERGRADUATE ASSESSMENT
Research suggests that student work is almost completely dominated by the demands of the assessment system implemented in their courses or modules . In their 2004 Subject Review, the UK Quality Assurance Agency recognised assessment as “the single intervention that would improve the quality of the student experience in HE institutions” . In order to be effective, students must become active participants in their own assessment; this active role helps them become independent learners and effective professionals .
This paper describes a distributed systems approach to assessment implemented in the undergraduate module Molecular Biology. The assessment comprised a series of sequence identification, database use and analysis steps, with each student being given a different starting gene. Students had to obtain the sequence of the gene from one species (database work), identify related genes in other species (one set of analysis tools and further database work), compare these genes (another analysis tool), and interpret the results generated. As each student was undertaking the same set of tasks, but with different starting data, this approach was very effective at reducing plagiarism. At the same time, students were still able to assist each other with the technical aspects of the task, which encouraged collaboration and teamwork. Moreover, a model worked example of the assignment could be presented to assist students with the task. In combination, the students analysed an entire genetic pathway. The combination of the assignments generated can be used to address a single larger question, which can be either teaching or research based, but that feeds back into the teaching, increasing student engagement and ownership. In our case, a follow up session was organised to discuss the wider questions about the evolution of genetic pathways, and has contributed to the generation of a number of interesting research questions. Student feedback on the assignment, gathered using an anonymous Assessment Experience Questionnaire (modelled on the one developed by ) was positive, as was informal feedback after the follow up session.
This approach to assessment, in which students undertake a small part of a larger task, is highly suited to various technical, skills-based, assignments, such as those central to the many types of bioinformatics analyses. However, it can also be applicable to various types of meta-review. The paper discusses the details for the implementation, as well as the benefits and potential pitfalls of the approach.
 Graham Gibbs, Claire Simpson (2004), Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students' Learning, Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1:(1), p. 3-31.
 QAA (2004) Learning from subject review, 1993-2001, p27, http://www.qaa.ac.uk/reviews/subjectReview/learningfromSubjectReview/subjectreview.asp.
 Liz McDowell, Kay Sambell, Victoria Bazin, Roger Penlington, Delia Wakelin, Howard Wickes, Joanne Smailes (2006) Assessment for Learning: Current Practice Exemplars, occasional paper 3, Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Assessment for Learning, http://www.northumbria.ac.uk/static/5007/cetlpdf/exemplars.pdf
 Evelyn Brown, Graham Gibbs and Chris Glower (2003) Evaluation tools for investigating the impact of assessment regimes on student learning. Bioscience Education, 2:5. http://www.bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/journal/vol2/beej-2-5.aspx