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M. Cameron, G. Piercy

University of Waikato (NEW ZEALAND)
Successful learning has been shown to result from engaging students in the concepts and skills they are learning. Students who engage do so in multiple ways, not just through formal study. Thus, it is important for teachers to employ a range of strategies, both within and outside the classroom, in order to promote student engagement. Connecting students’ everyday experience with disciplinary based content is a useful means of achieving this. In this paper, we discuss learning partnerships and integrated assessment styles that teachers can use to foster an engaging learning environment. Our approach is grounded in ‘student-centred learning’ with a goal of developing discipline based ‘communities of practice’ within each classroom group.

Learning partnerships is a strategy that transcends the classroom, challenges students’ perception of knowledge, and pushes them to examine the subjectivity of knowledge in classroom discussion and in assessment. It requires an interactive teaching style that privileges in-class discussion above traditional content delivery. The use of popular culture, media and music provides a basis by which the student can engage in theoretical discussion, albeit initially in connection to their everyday experience. This strategy also seeks to engage students by providing a range of supportive structures, designed to offset the power relationship between student and teacher. A collective approach to learning is fostered that extends beyond the classroom, particularly when classroom dynamics are supported with additional online resources and asynchronous discussion forums. This support is underpinned by a transparent approach to assessment design, where students are invited to have genuine input into aspects of the design process such as refining marking criteria and setting deadlines.

Student engagement can best be fostered when the initial assessment design itself is supportive of engagement. We present and discuss three specific types of assessment, each of which is specifically designed with student engagement as the goal. Each of these assessments may be implemented in combination with, or without, learning partnerships. First, we discuss the use of blogs as an online assessment. Blogs can be used as a tool to develop reflective behaviour in students, to enable them to engage with topic material in a systematic but simultaneously less intimidating forum, and to encourage peer learning. Second, we discuss video and multimedia projects as an alternative to traditional written essay-style assessment. The disciplinary framework within which we are developing communities of practice traditionally values assessment that does not contain substantive creative elements. Video and multimedia projects enable students to use their creative talents to explore lecture content and connect it with their everyday experience. Finally, we discuss integrated classroom experiments. These experiments can help to develop a research focus in students, by having them collect and analyse their own data, while simultaneously developing an understanding of the motivations of experiment participants.

The learning partnerships and assessment examples we describe have been developed for use in a variety of classroom settings, from small tutorials to large compulsory courses with hundreds of students. They are applicable not just in the social science disciplines from which our examples are drawn, but also in a variety of other subject areas.