Sunday, 18 November 2012

Learning to self-assess: lessons from Graham Gibbs and Prue Leith

After he'd given the keynote address at my faculty's workshop on assessment, Graham Gibbs was rather worried that he'd been teaching grandmothers to suck eggs. Despite being one of the gurus of learning design, having occupied key positions at Oxford Brookes and Oxford University, like  many people coming (or, in his case, coming back) to talk to the Open University, he was concerned that he didn't have anything to offer to an institution whose practice was already good and whose student satisfaction scores were excellent.

I reassured him that his talk and his presence had been valuable. Even if he hadn't said anything that was wholly new to anyone there - the principles of good assessment are, after all, like the principles of good usability, pretty stable and have been known for some time - these were still things of which we needed to be reminded, because we tend to forget them in the pressure of production and delivery. Like, for example, the principle that we should be equipping students to self-supervise and self-assess; not only does it save on staff time, but it gives them the ability to keep on learning and improving when we're not there to assess them, long after their course has finished.

By way of thanks, I shared with him - and I'll now share with you - a favourite anecdote about Prue Leith, whom I saw interviewed back in the 1990s about her cookery school. The interviewer asked her what was the first thing she taught her students, which was a pretty interesting question: traditionally cookery courses have started with boiling an egg (Delia Smith still did so in her 1970s TV series), so I wondered whether her school would do the same, or if not what else would be the first thing she got them to cook.

I wasn't expecting her answer. "I teach them to taste." And of course, once said, it's obvious: it's the fundamental skill for a cook. If you know how to assess your food, and correct and improve it, you can do anything; and if you don't, all the recipes in the world won't help you. I think more of our courses could begin with teaching people to taste, or the subject-relevant equivalent, even if it's not what students are expecting, or - they think - why they've enrolled on the course.

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