Around the world, university and college English teachers have been forced to adapt as institutions have moved their teaching online. Some were already working in the online space, although for many, teaching at a distance is entirely new.

Connections+Reflections offers critical pedagogy essays that reflect upon teaching and learning in in literature, creative writing, composition, and communication disciplines, during the COVID-19 pandemic or in the wake of other crises.

Pedagogical Innovation in Uncertain Times: Redesigning Assessments for Online Delivery, and Preparing Students for Changing Industry Practices

Per Henningsgaard, Curtin University

Danielle O’Leary, Curtin University

The discipline of English has, for some time now, been understood to include subjects as diverse as literary studies, creative writing, professional writing, composition, cultural studies, media studies, and more. The content and practice of English classrooms have evolved as the range of subjects included within the curricula has changed. More recently, the challenges presented by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have initiated further changes in how English is taught. But one thing that hasn’t changed is assessment. Most assessments in English broadly defined are written assessments, so it makes sense that they remained unchanged while everything around them—activities such as group discussion, peer feedback, and Socratic questioning—underwent a flurry of adaptation and innovation in order to accommodate the requirements of social distancing.

In this critically reflective response to teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, we share our experience with modifying an assessment out of necessity—but coming to recognise in this redesigned assessment a pedagogical practice with far-reaching benefits.

It is important that we recognise that the new teaching environment does not affect all English subject areas equally. Indeed, in an era of instrumentalist thinking about the role of education and an accompanying shift to online teaching, it will be easier for some English subject areas to implement pedagogical changes that strengthen and enhance their place in the university.

We teach in the Professional Writing and Publishing major at Curtin University, which is an industry-focused major in the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry. The aim of the major is to develop research and writing skills in three main areas: writing for industry and government; editing and publishing; and writing creative nonfiction (e.g. personal essays, memoir, literary journalism).

In this paper, we explore the changes recently implemented in a professional writing unit in response to both a shift to online teaching and a desire to create a more vocationally focused teaching environment. The success of these changes—as evidenced by positive student feedback, reduced student anxiety, improved learning outcomes and assessment performance, and improved preparation for changing industry practices—has prompted us to consider implementing similar changes across the curriculum. Therefore, we also discuss what other English subject areas might benefit from a similarly innovative pedagogical approach.

This critical reflection of teaching practice focuses on a case study of assessment redesign from May 2020. Writing and Research for Professional Contexts is a third-year unit that introduces students to a range of writing and research tasks and associated workplace practices. The unit prepares eligible students (i.e. those with a high enough course weighted average) to participate in a work placement in their final semester. Every year, we receive feedback from students who have completed their placements about the changing expectations of graduates, as well as changing writing and research practices in a variety of industries. Accordingly, we regularly revise curricula to include up-to-date content. While developing content is ongoing, not often do we have the opportunity to suddenly and drastically alter assessment method design in response to external circumstances.

The second assessment of the unit, Group Discussion, is modelled on a recruitment process used by government and large corporations. Traditionally, students are assigned to groups, presented with previously unseen notes on a crisis, and given 45 minutes to produce a written response in class. The students are observed during their group work in order to assess their skills in critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and teamwork. We also assess each group’s written response in order to judge the quality of their crisis management response. As Curtin University moved from face-to-face to online teaching in Week 5 of Semester 1, 2020, and the Group Discussion assessment was scheduled for Week 10, we had five weeks to adapt not only the new assessment delivery, but also to prepare the on-campus students for this changed design.

In addition to eliciting positive student feedback, the redesign of the Group Discussion in the Writing and Research for Professional Contexts unit from an in-class assessment to an online assessment yielded other promising outcomes. The two outcomes that we observed were reduced student anxiety and improved preparation for changing industry practices.

In previous semesters, when the Group Discussion assessment was in-class, we observed what appeared to be increased anxiety in many students. This anxiety was especially apparent in the hallway outside the classroom, where students would wait to be called in for their Group Discussion assessment. This anxiety would then linger during the assessment itself—evident in a trembling voice, reluctance to speak (especially early in the process), and so forth.

When it was redesigned as an online assessment, however, none of this anxiety was apparent. We attribute the difference to students being in a familiar environment that they were able to control. Of course, this attribution is largely speculation on our part, but it appears to be correlated to more systematic research conducted by other scholars. Admittedly, much of this research was conducted internationally in academic disciplines that are outside the discipline of English. Nonetheless, what the research identifies is the benefits of redesigning assessments from in-class to online. For example, Michael Braun’s research found ‘no significant difference… between [students] who presented in class and online… in terms of academic performance’, yet ‘when students were asked to choose a mode for a future presentation: none of the online presenters opted for the in-class mode while a third of in-class presenters selected the online mode’ (Abstract). A similar research project conducted by James S. Ave et al. found that nearly half of students surveyed preferred an online presentation over writing a paper, while only one-quarter indicated they would not choose an online presentation over writing a paper (380). Clearly, many students prefer online presentations—a finding that can likely be generalised to online group discussions. Braun does not offer an explanation for this preference, but it is possible to find it in the research conducted by Soo Yun Shin et al.: ‘Comparing face-to-face and video chat encounters… results show that people who interacted via video chat reported less arousal than those who interacted face-to-face… The findings suggest that… the lack of mere physical co-presence in mediated encounters might be beneficial for conflict resolution’ (1). While Shin et al. conclude that ‘less arousal’ might be beneficial ‘for conflict resolution’, it is safe to say that it would also be beneficial for reducing anxiety. In feedback provided after the online Group Discussion assessment, one of our students noted, ‘I was quite apprehensive at first because I thought, since the assessment was to be online, we’d be somewhat of a loss for communication skills we’d otherwise have in a face-to-face class. However, during the assessment, I remember how much fun we all had being part of a professional team brainstorming and working together.’

We can now shift our attention from the first positive outcome—reduced student anxiety—associated with the redesign of the Group Discussion assessment from in-class to online, to the second positive outcome. This second outcome—improved preparation for changing industry practices—can be further divided into two types of preparation. Students are better prepared for changing industry practices because they have gained experience, firstly, in collaborating and problem-solving in the online space and, secondly, in learning and adapting to new technologies.

The ability to collaborate and problem-solve in the online space is becoming increasingly important, as was made apparent to many when COVID-19 forced people to work from home. Accordingly, expectations for what is possible in online collaboration are being raised; Sophia Sobko et al. are responding to precisely this point when they call for ‘a revision of existing conceptualizations of collaborative learning’ (49). Sobko et al. continue, ‘Rather than understanding collaborative learning as a synchronous interaction between multiple individuals, we can helpfully conceptualize it as a network of relationships between human and non-human actants, converging both synchronously via voice-based means and asynchronously via text-based exchanges’ (49). It is important that students are prepared for these sorts of changing industry practices that involve collaborating and problem-solving in the online space. This is reflected by a participating student in feedback: ‘I feel that, in my group’s case, it worked just as well as it would have face to face. I honestly feel this would be a cool practice in future as many workplaces are now allowing more and more people to work remotely.’

One of the benefits of this particular changing industry practice is that it has the potential to be more inclusive than the practices it is replacing. Journalist Alexandra Samuel, writing for the Harvard Business Review, describes this potential for inclusivity in the following manner:

A final benefit of online collaboration is the ability to accommodate a wider range of communication and working styles. If you’re the kind of person who always speaks up in meetings… the traditional workplace may work just great for you. But you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.

We certainly observed some of these benefits when we redesigned the Group Discussion assessment from an in-class assessment to an online assessment; for example, some students who had always been very quiet in the classroom were able to distinguish themselves in the Group Discussion assessment through their note-taking, chat messages, or contributions to the crisis management written response. Collaborating and problem-solving in the online space is a changing industry practice that would benefit students—in more ways than one—to be familiar with.

Learning and adapting to new technologies is another important type of preparation for changing industry practices. Students who participated in the online redesign of the Group Discussion assessment needed to be proficient in, at a minimum, the following technologies: Blackboard, Blackboard Collaborate Ultra (including its chat feature), a webcam, and Google Docs. These types of technological requirements are hardly unique to this assessment, as Lisa Handke et al. remind us: ‘In a world characterized by rapid technological advancements, globalized markets, and increasingly flexible work arrangements, modern work environments are more than ever characterized by so-called virtual teams… so that communication and coordination are predominantly based on electronic communication media’ (4).

Many scholars are calling for universities to respond to precisely these sorts of changes. For example, American academics Kimberly Cassidy and Gina Siesing write in Inside Higher Ed, ‘To close the skills gap and provide long-term employability, we in higher education must continue to offer a broad-based education in which digital skills are not developed within a single set of courses, but rather throughout the entire curriculum and the wider array of co-curricular experiences’. Furthemore, J. Puckett et. al, in a report for the Boston Consulting Group management company, call for increased collaboration between industry and universities in order to prepare students for the workplace:

Many employers today struggle to keep themselves and their employers on top of the latest skills and technologies [emphasis added], even as higher-ed providers scramble to prepare students for the roles they hope to fill. Although higher education typically provides a good foundation and mindset for pursuing a future career, it can fall short in providing an up-to-date education that aligns with employers’ needs.

We know that it is not possible to teach and equip students with everything that they will need in the workplace; the range of occupations available to students from this major is too vast, and industry expectations (especially in relation to technologies) are fast changing. What we can do, however, is prepare students for a rapidly transforming world that requires them to regularly update existing skills and develop new skills. The assessed learning outcomes of our case study align with what scholars privilege as important foundational skills from Humanities courses.As noted in the World Economic Forum’s report The Future of Jobs 2020, Australian graduates are to have a selection of emerging skills, including creativity, originality and initiative; analytical thinking and innovation; complex problem solving; critical thinking and analysis; and resilience and flexibility (69). By designing assessments that mimic real-world experiences, we ensure our graduates have the capability to adapt to changing situations, including learning and adapting to new technologies.

With time for reflection, we now know that this assessment redesign has improved the unit’s delivery and student experience overall. We are continuing to provide our students with a progressive education that aligns with changing industry practices by staying with this online assessment design in 2021 and beyond. This teaching experience has furthermore prompted us to consider the authenticity of the assessment design within the major to ensure that our students have skills that are valued in the workforce. It is clearly important that students gain experience learning and adapting to new technologies if they are going to be prepared for changing industry practices, and it is equally clear that universities—including their teaching staff, especially in their assessment design—have a role to play.

For anyone reading this critically reflective response that doesn’t teach professional writing, but rather teaches other subjects within the discipline of English—subjects such as literary studies and creative writing—you might wonder how all of this applies to you. Indeed, you might question whether it applies to you at all. Is a teacher of literary studies or creative writing really expected to prepare students for changing industry practices by facilitating their acquisition of experiences learning and adapting to new technologies? It is our opinion that other English subject areas might benefit from a similarly innovative pedagogical approach that teaches their students to learn and adapt to new technologies. And it’s not just us who believe this. For example, R. Lyle Skains, who teaches creative writing at Bangor University in the UK, asserts,

The prevailing notion of creative writing workshops in higher education—that our creative writing students are all going to become short fiction writers and novelists—is not only shortsighted, it is backwards-facing. Today’s creative writers are immersed in a… multimodal—digital—universe. To ignore the many different modes and methods of narrative storytelling they have at their fingertips is to render our classrooms as backwaters. (2)

Skains goes on to ‘[note] the affordances, limitations, and benefits of teaching workshops for writing digital fiction (“born-digital” fiction, composed for and read on digital devices)’ (2).

As for teachers of literary studies, they often remark that they are teaching their students different ways of reading texts, and perhaps also ways of thinking about the world around them. Rarely, however, are they teaching their students different ways of writing. Instead, students in the literary studies classroom are consistently asked to demonstrate their critical thinking skills by writing in a single genre: the genre of the academic essay. And yet, in what has become a truth about effective pedagogy so widely accepted that, in 2017, it was added to the Curtin University Faculty of Humanities ‘Assessment Best Practices’ document, ‘Assessment tasks should be varied. Students have different preferred learning styles and effective assessment practice does not focus on one type of task only’ (3). It is important to offer students the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways, and some of those ways might involve new technologies such as writing for social media or creating a website. Once again, we would assert that it is important that students gain experience learning and adapting to new technologies in order to prepare them for life beyond the university, and we encourage those teaching in English broadly defined to consider ways in which some of their assessments might be redesigned to serve this purpose.

A note on data: Student feedback referred to throughout this essay was collected after the end of the semester. The authors emailed a small number of students and asked them to return feedback on the redesigned assessment. Students provided explicit written permission to share their anonymous quotes.

Works Cited

Ave, James S., Devin Beasley, and Amy Brogan. ‘A Comparative Investigation of Student Learning through PechaKucha Presentations in Online Higher Education.’ Innovative Higher Education, vol. 45, 2020, pp. 373-86, Accessed 27 October 2021.

Braun, Michael. ‘Comparative Evaluation of Online and In-Class Student Team Presentations.’ Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, vol. 14, no. 3, 2017, pp. 1-21, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Cassidy, Kimberly, and Gina Siesing. ‘Solving the Work Force’s Skills Gap.’ Inside Higher Ed, 9 Nov. 2017, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Curtin University Faculty of Humanities. Assessment Best Practices. 2017. Accessed 27 October 2021.

The Future of Jobs Report 2020. World Economic Forum, October 2020. Accessed 27 October 2021.

Handke, Lisa, Florian E. Klonek, Sharon K. Parker, and Simone Kauffeld. ‘Interactive Effects of Team Virtuality and Work Design on Team Functioning.’ Small Group Research, vol. 51, no. 1, 2020, pp. 3-47, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Puckett, J., Ernesto Pagano, Tyce Henry, Tobias Krause, Pashmeena Hilal, Arianna Trainito, and Abigail Frost. ‘Call for a New Era of Higher Ed–Employer Collaboration.’ Boston Consulting Group, 7 July 2020, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Samuel, Alexandra. ‘Collaborating Online Is Sometimes Better Than Face-to-Face.’ Harvard Business Review, 1 Apr. 2015, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Shin, Soo Yun, Wuyu (Rain) Liu, Jeong-woo Jang, and Gary Bente. ‘The Benefits of Distance and Mediation: How People React to Conflicts in Video Chat vs. FtF.’ Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 73, 2017, pp. 1-8, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Skains, R. Lyle. ‘Teaching Digital Fiction: Integrating Experimental Writing and Current Technologies.’ Palgrave Communications, vol. 5, 2019, pp. 1-10, Accessed 27 August 2021.

Sobko, Sophia, Devanshi Unadkat, Jessica Adams, and Glynda Hull. ‘Learning through Collaboration: A Networked Approach to Online Pedagogy.’ E-Learning and Digital Media, vol. 17, no. 1, 2020, pp. 36-55, Accessed 27 August 2021.