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Exploring Sensation, Imagination and Authenticity in assessment practice

29 Oct 2019 | Kieran Sheehan After the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference, Kieran Sheehan, Vice Principal of ALRA, SFHEA, shares his thoughts on his workshop exploring Sensation, Imagination and Authenticity in assessment practice.

Nervously I lay down sheets of blank body shapes. My plan is for workshop participants to use them to indicate where they feel physical responses to artefacts they are assessing. I swing between wondering if what I’m suggesting is blindingly obvious or groundbreaking genius….

As Vice Principal with responsibility for academic standards across the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts (ALRA) I often think about subjectivity when assessing performance and other artistic tasks. My previous career as a movement teacher and director involved making judgements based on things like physical sensation and emotional responses, both of which I would reference openly in discussions with performers.

My physical and emotional reaction to stimuli draws together ideas I have learnt through my social experience of the world and has become something that I believe is relevant to higher education assessment in thinking about subjectivity and safeguarding against bias.

Within my role at ALRA, I spend time communicating with inspecting bodies, discussing the atypical nature of our critical, evaluative assessments which often use arts-based methods rather than essay or journal submission. It has become increasingly apparent to me, in these discussions, that emotion, sensation and therefore ‘our history’ is part of the mechanism through which marks are determined. With this growing awareness, I have started a conversation with our faculty about how we can use physical sensation as a way of increasing our intersectional awareness of the way in which we award marks at ALRA.

Within the workshop, I propose that the participants notice the physical sensation they experience in response to reading/receiving text (deeming text as anything that is legible: body, sound, image) and mark this on their blank body outline. I ask them why they think they have that feeling in that part of their body, and what information that sensation might be giving them as to the reason they are interacting with the artefact in this way. Did they identify with the struggle, the sadness, the political lens? I then ask them to grade the text….

Mental Model theory is a useful lens through which to consider the process of using sensation as a tool to guide the assessor towards their own rationale for awarding the marks they decide upon. Sieck (et al) discusses the idea of a fragmentary mental model consisting of part-formed schemas that are drawn together to make the initial frame for an idea. In considering our response to assessed artefacts we can see more deeply how we have constructed our opinion through the mental model we form, for example seeing one body dancing a solo will feel different to seeing another…let alone considering the person that exists within that body. As we look at these bodies their psycho-social effect on us will be as meaningful as the explicit knowledge they will be presenting (their technique) in relation to the learning outcomes of the assessed task.

The frame I build for my mental model of an assessment is consistently made up of my identity and the field of cultural capital from which I draw to navigate my artistic taste, both of which are revealed within my emotional and physical response to artefacts.   

The discussion at ALRA hinges around the question that ‘if sensation is revealing something to me, should this not be a part of the feedback we give students for them to understand how we made the sense we made?’

The avoidance of assessor-self in assessment feedback will lead to the colonialization of the curriculum in any subject, particularly the arts, as it refuses the student the opportunity to recognise the lens of the assessor which is constructed of the fragments of their identity.

By offering the learner an insight to the way in which they affected us, we open up a place where the student understands that their words, thoughts, movements and feelings can be impactful beyond the assessor’s or perhaps even the Academy’s opinion because it means that they know their work could have affected another assessor differently. If we don’t include assessor-self in feedback, are we assuming that assessment is to perform/write/make sense in the way that the assessor does?  

This suggested approach sees authenticity within assessment as less about a grading binary and more about multiple opportunities to be interpreted - a deepening of the possibility of reflexivity in the learner and indeed the assessor.

Murmurs of enthusiasm and assured tones fill the room as the participants discuss the essay I ask them to assess. One academic notices feeling incensed outrage in their chest at the complicated writing style. Their voices are louder than when I asked them to do the same task with a photograph and piece of music, perhaps because the participants felt more comfortable in their body, in the feeling of familiarity with this type of text…

My maleness, queerness, whiteness, middle-classness, educatedness, artistic training-ness, informs the mark I am giving a student, it informs the internal dialogue I have with myself and the identity I assume in moderating artistic submissions with others. I am claiming that my identity is often revealed through the sensation I experience in response to the work I am marking.  This can be a useful physio-emotional reaction, a somatic-marker, for me to use as information as to why I am awarding the grade, what assumptions I am making, what inbuilt prejudice/bias is coming to the fore through my sense based reaction to a student’s work.

Can noticing and sharing this with the learner become a significant step toward avoiding colonialization of practices within both yourself and your Academy? As an assessor of HE learning, in recognising our felt response to assessment can we uncover fragments of our identity that can help the learner re-perceive their habitual ways of knowing and bring their thinking into deeper more sociologically connected processes of thought construction. Will this process of revealing assessor-identity within assessment help us to maintain academic standards by seeing patterns of judgements between student and tutor identities? 

As I look at the sheets with blank bodies on at the end of the workshop, I see some scribbles in people’s guts, in their shoulders, in their sternum, in their head. It seems like, we were beginning to make some sense together, to ask these tricky questions… to make sense of sensation and assessment…it made me a tingling sensation of hopefulness in my chest.

Teaching and Learning Conference 2020: Teaching in the spotlight: Creative thinking to enhance the student experience: From curriculum design to student success is now open for booking.

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