Ashley Weleschuk, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning
July 24, 2017
“It’s really exhilarating. There’s an incredible focus that can’t happen during the regular semester.” –Dr. Cornelia Burian
The University of Calgary offers a unique learning opportunity for students: block week courses. Taught at the beginning of the semester, just before regular classes start, these courses take place over five days, in high-intensity instructional blocks. In block week classes, students completely immerse themselves in one particular class. Dr. Cornelia Burian teaches GERM 357, Topics in Film, during block week, and has redesigned her assessments to be a natural fit with the rest of the course. Assessing and giving feedback to students with just five days of instruction is a major challenge, but Dr. Burian has found ways to ensure that her students are getting value from assessments and that they promote learning instead of anxiety.
The first time Dr. Burian taught during block week, she used the same assessments that her colleague used in previous iterations of GERM 357. There were daily written assignments, quizzes, group presentations, and a take-home final exam. While most of the assessments worked well, Dr. Burian found that the constant writing assignments were stressful and did not have many benefits for students. There wasn’t enough time to give feedback during the five days of block week, so student work did not improve during the course. There was no way for students to know how well they were doing on the assignments, and it was a lot of work, on top of daily readings, studying for quizzes and preparing for presentations.
Dr. Burian now only assigns one written essay on the first day of the week. Two days later, students are given some class time to peer review one another’s work. They have a worksheet with a checklist that follows the rubric that they are graded on. There are also TAs present to help students with concerns that cannot be addressed with the peer review. The essay is due on the last day of block week. This works much better for students, as they get feedback and support during their writing process, and they have time to revise their work before it is due. The overall assessment feels less rushed and better supported.
The essay also helps students prepare for their take-home final exam. Since there is no time for a traditional final exam during the five days of block week, students are given several weeks to complete the exam. It consists of four, open-ended questions that are responded to in a similar format to the essay. Students are able to apply the feedback from their essay to the final and many do slightly better.
GERM 357 runs very smoothly with the revised assignments. Students really enjoy the course, even though it is incredibly intense and can be exhausting. Students come from different faculties and disciplines, and most have no background studying film, let alone in the German context. However, the nature of the course means that they have to be deeply engaged in their study.
Dr. Burian notes how important it is to keep the focus of assessment on the goals for the course and for the program. Particularly in such a condensed course, everything needs to be done deliberately and effectively. Even in traditional courses, assessments are a major part of the overall course design and cannot be separated from that. When assessments have a purpose, they can help promote student learning and engagement.