Discipline-Specific Assessment Methods
“Experiential learning leads to a multi-dimensional sense of learning. A lot of that happens outside of [students’] comfort zones” –Dr. Lisa Stowe
Dr. Lisa Stowe believes that the Communications program at the University of Calgary does a great job helping students develop critical reading, writing, and presenting skills, but sometimes other professional skills are neglected. After they graduate, students often go on to work in marketing, social media, and both internal and external communications. These roles often require being a part of large, long-term projects. She uses the course COMS463: Rhetorical and Professional Communication in Online Environments to simulate a workplace environment so students can not only learn the content, but learn to work in a way that will be valuable in the future. Students get the opportunity to work on a capstone project that allows them to do work similar to that of a professional in their industry.
On the first day of class, students form groups of 4-6 for the entire semester and start learning to work together. Dr. Stowe dedicates the first half of the course to teaching students about collaboration techniques. Students often believe the most efficient and effective way of working together is splitting up each component and combining them at the end. However, by learning about group work techniques, they realize that, while some work needs to be divided, there needs to be consistent communication, brainstorming, and active listening between group members. Students are encouraged to assign a project manager and some other positions within the group. This helps the group ensure they are focusing on long-term goals, but still making sure the small details are getting the attention they need.
The major task for students is developing an online presence for an organization of their choice, such as a business or charity. They have freedom to choose what the online presence looks like, but they are required to develop a website using the free platform Wix. It is a fairly accessible platform that gives extensive creative control over the website’s features and design, but it is not perfect. It occasionally glitches or does not do exactly what the users want. This is a good learning moment for students, as they are forced to face challenges and manage technical issues with the platform, something that could be required of them in the workplace.
Students are also encouraged to use social media pages, blogs, and comments to make their organization known online. Each group tends to have a few members who are technology-savvy and familiar with different types of online platforms, so they are able to produce high-quality content in a variety of ways.
A major component of the project is creating a portfolio that outlines and explains the decisions that they made with the online content. The course content about rhetorical communications and online conversations needs to be applied in the project. Students need to understand their organization and its audience in order to effectively communicate their content. They cannot just make random choices without reason. The portfolio portion of the project ensures that students were thoughtful in their work.
Dr. Stowe chooses to use a portfolio to track the project instead of a written essay because it is closer to how companies work. A portfolio also allows students to use multiple ways to show their learning, including written work and visuals. It is a good way to track progress, as students can add to it throughout the entire semester, rather than just at the very end. Rubrics need to be clear and specific for large projects like this one. Students need to know what the expectations are in order to have the freedom to be creative without being afraid of losing marks.
The biggest challenge that students face is figuring out the logistics of the project. It is a large undertaking with many different components. However, after a few weeks of working together, students figure out how to manage it. Dr. Stowe dedicates a lot of class time for independent work on the project. She remains independent of the students’ work unless they approach her with a question. The classroom works like a workplace, where students are all working with one another on different parts of the projects at once. It is a dynamic and exciting learning environment for students.
The last day of classes becomes the Website Launch day, where each group presents their work to the rest of the class. Dr. Stowe is always impressed by the high quality of student work that is produced. Students feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, along with relief at the end of the long project. All of their work and dedication pays off and they create something that they can showcase not only at the launch, but at future job interviews. Their portfolios are a demonstration of the skills and understanding that they brought to the development of their online presence, something employers are very interested in seeing.
Dr. Stowe is a major advocate for using portfolios as assessments. She believes it better encompasses different learning styles, helps students track their improvement and development, and can demonstrate skills and knowledge in a way that other assessment forms cannot. She encourages other instructors to try applying more experiential learning methods in their courses. Although they can be difficult and frustrating for students, Dr. Stowe believes that a lot of learning comes out of challenging moments and they are always better off for having experienced them.
To read about how Dr. Stowe helps students’ self-assess in another course, click here