Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Distance Engineering students enjoy creative problem-solving to test their knowledge and understanding

Taken from 
A S S E S S M E N T & F E E D B A C K P R A C T I C E S , 
V O L . 1 , N O . 1

Distance Engineering students enjoy creative problem-solving to test their knowledge and understanding

Dr. Abdeldjalil Bennecer, Senior Lecturer in Engineering

Professor Phil Picton, Professor of Engineering

The Department of Engineering within the School of Science and Technology offers a unique course in non-destructive testing both at a foundation and bachelor degree levels. Since its inception, the course has been delivered in distance learning mode to accommodate the cohort of students who are interested in the course. They usually work in full time jobs in different parts of the world. Moreover, their jobs involve travelling to remote places for long periods of time at short notice.

While the provision of learning packages has been facilitated and organised through NILE (the University’s Virtual Learning Environment), the assessment posed a number of challenges in terms of quality and rigour. This is evident from the high portion of students who achieve grades exceeding A-. One may argue that this is a testament to our quality of tuition of this course. However, it is difficult to reconcile these results with the assessment conditions where students are offered six weeks or more to answer a set of questions in an open book style and without the usual exam type time constraint. Furthermore, the external examiners have often expressed a concern about
the distribution of grades. Professional accreditation bodies such the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) would not accredit a course where standard type exams do not represent a large proportion of the assessment. 

Our aim and that of the accreditation institutions is to ascertain that a student with a mere pass is able to function as an engineer and the assessment should reflect that. In order to address this issue, we have sought to harness the capabilities of NILE to improve the quality of our assessment for distance learning students. We created assessments that include a range of question types from formulae to essays to cater for students with different skills. We also generated the same question with a different set of numerical values for each student using regular expression on NILE. Despite our best efforts, this has not resulted in a distribution of grades that is representative of students with different capabilities, albeit, there is a marked improvement. On a close inspection though, the essay type questions seem to produce a range of grades from a simple pass to distinction.

We have then generated a case study in non-destructive testing and invited students to submit an academic report discussing their approaches to the problem. In order to make the problems more interesting and thought provoking, we suggested using nondestructive testing methods that are non-standard and ask students to use their creative minds to make it work. We expect the distribution of the overall grades to change as a result of these changes. Thus far, it has proved to be instructive for students and lecturers alike. We intend to solicit some feedback from the current cohort of students to learn about their experience.