University of Glasgow Learning and Teaching Committee Away Day, 24 October 2013

University of Glasgow
Learning and Teaching Committee
Away Day, 24 October 2013
Good Practice presentation – innovative Assessment practices used in Politics
Dr Kurt Mills, Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences
Non-exam-based assessment and why it is important
Students learn in different ways and communicate their knowledge and understanding in different ways.
Thus, from a general perspective of fairness and good pedagogical practice, it is important to provide
multiple forms of learning and assessment throughout the curriculum.
While lectures may be important at times to convey specific information, and exams may be important
at times to measure factual information as well as some types of argumentation, if we are serious about
supporting critical thinking, we need to provide classroom-based experiences which allow this, and
assessment which evaluates this.
Politics offer a wide variety of interactive and discussion-based activities. One exercise used at both
Honours and Postgraduate levels is formal debates. Choosing a contentious topic for which there are
no clear answers, students are put into groups of around 3-4 people which collectively develop an
argument over the course of a couple of weeks. They put forth and defend this argument in a
structured debate with specific limits for various argumentation and counter-argumentation, and then
continue the debate in a more informal manner as they respond to questions from their classmates.
This fosters group work and collective decision-making as well as encouraging research and critical
thinking skills – all of which are goals of education generally and which are absolutely essential in the
job market.
Another activity at the Postgraduate level is found in the course Critical Perspectives on Human Rights
co-taught with Mo Hume and Vikki Turbine. In this course, partnered with the Edinburgh office of the
European Parliament to run an event connected to the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Small
groups of students do research and presentations on the nominees in class, linking the nominees to
different types of activism and political contexts. The class activity contributes directly to class goals of
critical thinking, exploring different perspectives on and understandings of human rights, different
types of human rights abuses, and different types of resistance to such abuses. One person from each
group then participates on a public panel at an event sponsored by the Glasgow Human Rights Network
and the European Parliament. This gives students experience in making professional presentations and
also connects what the students are studying to the broader community – within and beyond the
University. Also in that class, in addition to standard essays, we have students write short critical essays
on three academic articles – two articles assigned from one week of the class plus another one they
have to find on the same topic. Since this is the first piece of written work most of them will be doing
for their MSc programme, a shorter piece helps them develop confidence in their writing and specific
analytical and critical thinking skills – and helps them understand what goes on within a piece of
academic writing.
One other assignment used at both Honours and Postgraduate levels is further group work - groups of 4
who create a human rights organisation. Students must choose a topic, do background research on
the human rights abuses in question, find out what other organisations are doing to address the issue,
and identify gaps in protection. They then design an organisation to fill some of these gaps, discussing
how it will operate, the constraints it will work under, and what strategies it will use to make it more
successful than other organisations. The students are asked to think about their organisation in the
context of some of the theoretical literature we cover in the course, in particular with regard to how
nongovernmental organisations operate. The activity thus promotes research, critical thinking, and
group work, and encourages students to be creative.
All of the above assignments and activities promote a variety of things which go far beyond what we can
reasonably expect from traditional lecture and exam teaching. Not all of the activities are formally and
directly assessed as part of student grades, but they support key teaching objectives and also give a
message to students that not all learning involves receiving a mark. Those assignments which do
receive a mark, measure independent research, extended critical thinking, creativity and the ability to
work in groups which are not amenable to evaluation in the same way via exams, but which are
increasingly important skills for students to develop – both for being successful in the job market as well
as being active global citizens.