Addressing Assignment Bunching

Recent student feedback, through the Course Experience Survey, and the SU Change Week initiative had identified ‘assignment bunching’ as something students would like to see addressed.

So, what can be done?

There are probably three key things course teams can consider to address this issue:

  • taking a course level view of formative and summative assessment deadlines;
  • helping students to manage their time effectively;
  • planning an assessment strategy that involves some assignments requiring continuous engagement with reflection on learning.

These are inter-related.  Some are relatively easy to adopt, whilst others will take more time.  They all start form the principle that a student’s learning experience is (and should be) of an integrated course, rather than a set of modules that are designed and developed in isolation from one another.

Taking a course view of assignment deadlines

Of course, within a modular course structure some bunching of assignment deadlines towards the end of modules and/or the end of the academic year is inevitable.  We introduced the requirement that all courses at levels 4 and 5 should have two yearlong 30 credit modules, as one mechanism to address assignment bunching at the end of semester 1.  It should be straightforward to set assignment deadlines for 30 credit modules that are not within the period that students will be submitting end of 15 credit module assignments.

We also include within the Course Handbook template a pro-forma for mapping assignment hand-in dates.  This is intended to provide an overview for the course team so that they can make adjustments if necessary, and provide a point of reference for students.   Now that assignment hand-in dates are recorded on the student record system, we are working on a mechanism to download these for CLs to review, and also to be incorporated into Handbooks and /or put onto Blackboard for students.  We are also exploring the calendar function within Blackboard to see how this can help.

In reviewing a schedule of assignment deadlines, the following might be asked:

  • How do formative assessments fit into the schedule?
  • Are assignment deadlines for 30 credit modules scheduled not to occur at the end of semester 1 (where 15 credit module deadlines will be in place).
  • Can submission deadlines for end of semester assignments be spaced so that multiple assignments are not due on the same date?
  • Do deadlines take account of the nature of the assignment?
  • Where students choose between two optional modules, can the deadlines be on the same date?

Helping students with time management

It is important to encourage and help students plan their time to manage assessments and in particular in the early stages of a courses to structure this, by setting directed and formative work related to summative assignments so they cannot leave it all to the end.   We need to challenge the assumption that just because deadlines are close together, the work associated with assignments has to be done at that point.

It is already a matter of University policy that courses are expected to use Turnitin as an educational tool for level four students, and to provide them with structured opportunities to submit formative work and discuss originality reports.  This is to support students in understanding academic integrity and in the development and execution of the academic skills associated with referencing.

Setting an early short written formal formative assessment (submitted through Turnitin/Blackboard) is an effective strategy for identifying students who will potentially have time management problems and be at risk.  Discussions are currently being undertaken as to whether this should become a matter of University policy for all courses from 2019/20.

Establishing good study habits through directed learning in the early stages of a course is generally well embedded across the University.  It is evident from student feedback that students particularly appreciate this when it is linked to assignments, and there are opportunities to discuss in class.

Assignment formats that require continuous assessment

‘Assessment for learning’ is now widely accepted within the sector as a best practice principle for assessment strategies – and indeed the updating of the University Assessment Policy emphasises this.   Assessment for learning is about keeping student actively engaged, with the ultimate goal of developing self-regulated learners who can assess their own strengths and limitations, plan and take action accordingly.

There are a number of assignment formats that particularly support this objective, and because they require continuous or regular work towards assessment, (including summative assessment) may help address the ‘bunching’ issue.

1              Adoption of patchwork text assignment formats: structured series of short pieces of writing carried out at regular intervals, ideally shared and discussed in class with others, together with end of module retrospective commentary, which seeks to relate the pieces and perhaps assess how they have met the learning outcomes of the module

2              Adoption of staged assessments, whereby students draft and write short pieces, get feedback and these contribute  to the overall end product, for example essay plan and annotated bibliography (30%) , draft of introduction, summary of argument, and conclusion (30%) and final essay (40%)

3              Use of assignments that require reflection on the learning process, eg learning journals and/or portfolios

4              Use of regular in-class tests focused on key concepts/knowledge.

Instrumental (or strategic?) students

Anecdotal evidence suggests some students are taking strategic decisions about submitting (or not) assignments, either late or for reassessment.  Clearly, there is a disincentive for doing this, in that marks are capped to bare pass (D-), and if a formal reassessment is required, the number of attempts are recorded on the student’s transcript.  There is some evidence that suggests a small proportion of students may be making calculated and rational decisions about this – those that perhaps have at most one or two reassessments to complete.   There is however, a much larger number who accumulate multiple non-submissions and find they are unable to cope with the reassessment load.   This is one reason why monitoring student progress is so important, if we can avoid students getting to the point of having multiple non-submissions they will stand a better chance of being successful.

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