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I had a very interesting day yesterday in Auckland, at a NZ Engineering Educator’s forum.  Here, there were representatives from across the tertiary sector looking at ways of improving the way that Engineering is done at universities and polytechnics.

The main speaker was Keith Willey, from the University of Technology, Sydney. He gave some great insights into the way that feedback works and how students can use each other to learn (peer learning). He’s done a lot of work trying to get these strategies to work really well. He showed a few video clips from his classrooms – the most obvious thing that struck me was just how noisy it was. 

Keith talked a bit about a few strategies he’s used – e.g. multiple choice scratch-cards to give the students really instant feedback, but I’ll share the most totally outrageous one – allowing students to talk to each other during tests and exams.

It needs a bit of qualifying – students are allowed to talk to each other (but not write anything down) in the first fifteen minutes of the exam. The point is that the exam then becomes a learning experience in its own right – not just a summative exercise. Students can discuss strategies for tackling particular problems before doing them, and learn from each other. 

That, of course, is the point. The idea of an engineering degree is that a student who completes it has ‘learned’ – has acquired knowledge, skills, abilities etc that are suited for engineering. The role of the teaching staff is to provide them with, and to help them  take, opportunities to learn.  And an exam is one of those opportunities.

Very, very interesting. It would take some nerve to implement it here.