CC-BY 4.0 image from Wellcome Images

In an October 2014 blog post we looked at patchwork text assessment and discussed some tentative findings from the first year of a three year patchwork text project being run in the School of The Arts by Dr Craig Staff (Senior Lecturer in Fine Art) and Rob Farmer (Learning Designer). We have now collected the data from the second year of the project, so now seems like a good time to provide an update on how things are going.

The patchwork text project is designed to assess whether changing an undergraduate assessment from an 2,000 word essay to a 2,000 word series of blog postings improves the quality of the assignment submissions. In addition to this, the project is looking at impact on the student experience of this change and the impact on the workload of the staff assessing the blog postings.

So far, 235 participants have taken part in the project, which involves students from three Fine Art modules at levels 4 and 5. Of these participants, 58 (24.7%)  have provided feedback to us via a voluntary and anonymous survey. In addition to the quantitative data we have collected, we also have over 3000 words of qualitative feedback, and we are now getting clearer picture of how these students feel about this type of assessment.

Whilst we don’t want to say too much until the end of the project when we will have examined the data is detail, the picture that is emerging so far is that the majority of survey respondents are feeling positive about the change from an essay to a patchwork text assessment. For example, of our respondents, 74.1% said that they liked being able to build up the writing over a series of entries, 70.7 felt that it made the writing process easier and more manageable, and 79.3% said that they would be happy to complete other assignments this way. And when it comes to their perceptions of their grades, it looks as if the respondents felt that they did slightly better in the patchwork assignment than they normally do in written assignments – but more data and analysis is needed here before we make any claims regarding the statistical significance of this particular finding.

One theme that has begun to emerge from the qualitative data is that patchwork text assessment can be difficult, especially at first, because the low word count for the individual entries means that students have to write in a very concise, precise and focused way. However, in most cases students manage to overcome this difficulty in the first few blog entries and ultimately appreciate developing the skills involved in this type of writing. Comments from students on this theme include:

“The process of summarising a topic and ‘making every word count’ can be demanding, but it is not without rewards.”

“At first I found it really difficult, trying to get such broad subjects into 250 words but by the end I was better able to evaluate and edit my work into a cohesive and intense 250 word blog.”

“I found that having to condense the key points of a particular topic into 250 words was extremely difficult. However, this forced me to think about the topic a lot more, and I found that it really helped with learning about each topic.”

“After writing a few blog entries, I felt more confident in what I wanted to say. What I mean by this is that my writing became more prescribed and focused, rather than writing ‘waffle’ as it were and rambling on. This has also helped me massively, in terms of my own artistic practice. It has enabled me to pinpoint exactly what my work is about.”

“The blog was a really good way to ease into the discipline of academic writing again. I settled into the work as my blog progressed, however I did find the word cap a little frustrating, particularly when I wished to add more substantial content. That said, this forced me to be concise and helped me to focus closely upon the salient points.”

“The nature of the patchwork essay is very positive. Having a restricted word count for each entry made the research more vital to certain key areas of the weeks lecture. This forced me to narrow down issues that seemed important/relevant or most interesting and link these to the overarching theme or topic of discussion at the given time.”

Nevertheless, the old adage that you can’t please all of the people all of the time still rings true, and not all of our responses were positive. A few students found it very difficult to get beyond the frustration of having to keep the word count at 200 words per entry, but fortunately these were in the minority, and hopefully this is something that we can work on addressing as the project moves forwards.

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