Counting counts but syntax sucks

The quote I’ve used as the title of this post has been attributed to the late Professor Roger Needham at the University of Cambridge.

I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for two months and am only now mentioning our work with short-answer free-text e-assessment questions for the first time. I talked about this  yesterday at ALT-C at Nottingham University (the photo shows the Millenium Garden), in a demonstration linked to the launch of the JISC guide to ‘Effective Assessment in a Digital Age’ (in which we feature as a case study). I’m talking about the work again on Friday, at the Physics Higher Education Conference in Glasgow.

In summary: we have written computer-marked e-assessment questions in which students give their answer as a short sentence (up to 20 words). We give students three attempts at each question, with increasing targeted feedback for incomplete and incorrect responses. We have used responses from students in developing our answer-matching – I think that’s key. We’ve used both linguistically-based software (Intelligent Assessment Technologies’ FreeText Author) and the OU’s own OpenMark PMatch, which is entirely based on keywords and word-order. Both have worked well, achieving better marking accuracy than human markers. I’m not advocating  doing away with human markers, however perhaps we could use this type of e-assessment to relieve them of some of the drudgery, leaving them free to mark more sophisticated work and to support students in other ways.

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