The role that assessment plays in a student’s career is a much-discussed issue within Higher Education (HE). While universities have the privilege of designing and awarding their own qualifications, often, the means of assessing these courses remains static and outmoded.
Wendy Robinson, Pro Vice-Chancellor (PVC) for Education at Lancaster University, sat down with GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews to discuss the importance of curricula transformation, how to make assessment more inclusive, and how her academic background in the history of education has informed her work as an educational leader in HE.
I started as PVC for Education here at Lancaster last October, and I’m excited to be in this role with some fabulous colleagues. I want to make sure the quality of the education here is as good as it can be: that’s in regards to the teaching, learning and the student experience. I’m particularly keen to co-create with our students to produce an excellent learning environment.
I’m currently leading a programme of curricula transformation, looking hard at how we embed our values of sustainability, globalisation and entrepreneurship. We’re also thinking about how we equip educators to provide an up-to-date, digital-first offer. It’s an exciting time to be in this role.
I was the first person in my family to go into HE. I wanted to be a teacher and went to Homerton College, Cambridge, where I studied Education and History. It was a wonderful experience, and I was exposed to some fantastic and inspirational staff. They showed me a passion for a subject, and what it could be like to research.
I then went to London and studied for a master’s in the History of Education. After that, I got a scholarship to go back to Cambridge to complete a PhD, and worked with two brilliant scholars there — Phil Gardner and Peter Cunningham.
If you give time to people, you can inspire them with your passion. The passion and commitment of Professor Richard Aldrich (who I did my master’s with at the London Institute of Education) stayed with me. These role models helped me think about what kind of educator I wanted to be. Since then, I’ve been really keen to nurture people around me. You don’t get stuff done on your own — you get things done through collaboration and recognising and supporting the expertise and interests of colleagues. I see my role as one of enthusing and motivating others.
I was a professor at Exeter for 15 years. There, I reformed the tutoring model with colleagues and developed a student-facing dashboard to develop learning dialogues between students and their tutors, and help students monitor their progress.
I also reformed the approach to students who had had their learning disrupted. I was keen to make sure our approach to students with individual learning plans that needed extra support was clearer and that the right people knew what was going on.
You don’t get stuff done on your own — you get things done through collaboration and recognising and supporting the expertise and interests of colleagues.
At Exeter, I also looked at the attributes we were confident our graduates were leaving with. I employed a cohort of recently graduated students who became my ‘education catalyst team’. They completed a mapping project, analysing the curriculums of all departments to establish what was being done well, and what could be improved. I’m going to apply some of my learning from this project with my current Curriculum Transformation Project at Lancaster too.
Students definitely feel more isolated — they haven’t had access to the range of experience and opportunities they would typically get.
We need to understand what it is the students feel concerned about, so I like to really utilise our academic representatives. If they feel anxious about assessment, making sure our approaches to assessment are straightforward and inclusive is essential.
Students need to feel part of a community, which can be found in different ways — on their courses, voluntary work, and societies, so we need to ensure we provide and support the provision of a rich experience. Student groups are diverse and have diverse interests, but also need opportunities to be challenged. We need to listen to students rather than tell them what to do and think, and work collaboratively to achieve that.
It’s about giving opportunities to students to demonstrate that they’ve understood course material and have gained new skills and knowledge. Assessment is an important part of learning, it’s a way we develop confidence that students have reached certain standards. Often the diet of assessment is limited to essays and exams, but it’s got to be more than this.
Students have varying needs, particularly neurodiverse students, so it’s our job to think about how we can tailor assessments to meet these diverse needs, so they can show what they can do, rather than catch them out on what they don’t know.
We try to provide a range of assessment opportunities that speak to different students’ strengths, for example, through presentations. Assessments need real-world application, so it’s crucial we think about that too.
You’ve got to love what you do. As I grow in my leadership roles, I continue to learn and reflect. You’ve got to be who you are. When I was younger, I felt I had to grow thick skin to be a leader, and I was worried I didn’t have the right qualities.
I’ve learned since that I can be authentic as a leader and be myself. I’m clear about what I want to achieve and bring people with me, and that’s because I’m passionate about the transformative power of education. Universities provide a fabulous environment in which you can be passionate about a subject and make a difference. It is a huge privilege to have spent my career thus far working in universities.
Someone who is still very influential in the space is Professor Sir Steve Smith. He’s currently working for the government as an international ambassador for education but for a long time he was VC at Exeter University. He was on the appointment panel when I got my job at Exeter and supported me in my leadership development over the subsequent fifteen years there. I learned a lot watching him develop the university through his own value system.
I’m going to reference what is probably an obscure book to many people: the Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England by Phil Gardner. This book offers quite a radical revisionist history — approaching the field in a way that challenges existing understandings of working-class education in the 19th century. It also showcased his meticulous methodological approach to the business of doing research and inspired me to pursue my interest in History of Education as a very young scholar.