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Hong Kong Higher Education Experiences

Assoc. Prof. Robert Ferguson

HKUST faculty member, Robert Ferguson, shares his experiences of using a formative assessment technique called Line Stop which he implemented in a Social Science course.

In this interview, he kindly shares his experiences of using a formative assessment technique adapted from continuous quality improvement principles called Line Stop. Although he applied this to the course as a whole (curriculum content, delivery and assessment), it has key significance for assessment for learning.

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Humanities and Social Science

Using Line Stop in a Social Science Course

Assoc. Prof. Robert Ferguson

Working in the Division of Social Sciences, Robert Ferguson received his PhD from Minnesota University in 1996. His main research interests are history of science and technology, business history, and technological and organizational change in the aerospace industry.

In this interview, he kindly shares his experiences of using a formative assessment technique adapted from continuous quality improvement principles called Line Stop. Although he applied this to the course as a whole (curriculum content, delivery and assessment), it has key significance for assessment for learning.

CEI: What was the reason for introducing the Line Stop technique into your course?

Robert Ferguson: I was teaching a large class at the time of about one hundred and fifty and I was more or less on autopilot in lecturing as it was just when I first arrived. I thought I was giving everything in fairly metered doses but when I started to check with the students, and I started to test them, I realized that my expectations weren't being met and something was getting lost and I very quickly needed to find out ways to improve what was going on in the lecture theater.

CEI: Could you briefly give some background to the course and describe what you did?

Robert Ferguson: The course is called Science, Technology and Society and deals with social science perspectives on technological change and so covers areas such as the politics of technology, the philosophy of technology, ethics and technological decision making. It encompasses a wide range of different viewpoints and methodologies. It is a 100 level, elective course with about 50% of the students from Business, 30% from Engineering and 20% from Science.

I implemented Line-Stop partly because, at that time in the course, I was looking at Japanese quality control methods as an innovation system. I wanted to look at it as an alternative method for coming up with new ideas as opposed to the science fed laboratory model. This is a workshop model; what the rest of us do most of the time in improving things. It's very simple but it's very important that you have a few ingredients. One ingredient is that your students need to be in on the larger goals and this is important for students as usually they are focused on the grade. And I ask them to take a moment to think about their long term goals and how this class, how this lecture, fits in to that. And then to really take it seriously .... if you just ask students "how could you make this course better?", it's not enough because they're going to come back with very simplistic responses: "well we want less work", "no tests", "better grades", so to put them in a long-term frame of mind. The second aspect of quality control and line-stop is that the workers (students) need to be trained. They need to know how to make improvements. Fortunately our students are already well trained as they've taken many different classes and they already know what works and what doesn't. And so it's a standing reservoir of knowledge that you can tap in to and if you use this method three or four weeks into a semester, they are already an expert on you. They have spent more time watching you than you have spent watching yourself probably. The last thing is empowering them and that's because Hong Kong students don't like to speak up in class, though ... generally in many large lectures theaters anywhere in the world, I don't know if you'll find too many students who are ready to raise their hands and say "hey, this isn't working". It's very important, and this is the idea of line-stop, that as soon as you see an error in the process you stop and address it. And you don't just correct that one error, you find out what led to that and how you got yourself into this situation. And definitely not all the students will feel comfortable stopping a lecture that's going on in LTA but eventually a few do and will say "I don't understand that word". Of course, if they're spending a few minutes trying to translate a word and I've moving on, that's not productive... and chances are that it's not just one but 50% of the class who are having the problem, so empowering them to be part of their own education is crucial.

How you structure that, how you implement and apply it, there are a zillion different ways. You can apply it to lecturing style, you can apply it to assignments, you can apply it to exams. Many of the responses will repeat ... one simple thing I do is put them into groups so they can talk about both the problems and solutions ... but also if there is a problem, there's no need to have 150 students looking at the same problem. It is enough to have 10 or 20 groups and everything that is wrong will come to the surface very quickly and sometimes they'll have some very good ideas about how to correct it.

As training, I first run them through Line-stop exercise in which they get into groups and dredge up problems about the course and try to solve them on their own. That serves as a model for how they should approach learning problems from then on in the course. That initial grouping, because they act it out and we go through motivation and long term goals, the buy-in to the process, having them really feel empowered, they know they are part of the process even if they come back as individuals. And after the initial exercise, I come back to them with changes as appropriate. In the first semester I did this there were tons of changes and in the second semester, I made structural changes I couldn't make immediately in response to the first semester's feedback. But like any incremental system, there are diminishing returns, you handle the big problems right away but after a while there's not much I can do about course workload. Students still have to do all the reading even if I've optimized it. In this process they can evaluate curriculum content, teaching style and learning assessment.

With a large class like this, I don't have the manpower to grade 400 essay exams which is really what I'd like to do, I don't have the manpower to go through all the homework assignments so the testing is multiple choice, which they have a love-hate relationship with. The nature of the issues I'm dealing with are naturally gray and I don't think these can be reduced to multiple-choice questions so I'm in a bind. Starting out, my initial focus in teaching was on the lectures and really assessment measures got short shrift. But the students have always complained that the tests were tricky. Initially, they were saying "you are saying you want us to think critically, but then you test on memorization", but I knew that was a problem even without the students; they forced the issue though. The solution for me was to develop some questions that require deeper thinking. But I still got complaints .. but a different set of complaints. The students who were saying "you know these questions just make us memorize things", well I might've satisfied them but then there are a group of students who really do just like to memorize things. But I'm satisfied that these new questions are testing for something deeper and in this case they are reading questions. So I give a few paragraphs of a scenario and then they've got to work it through. I give them a number of answers that could be correct and they've got to choose the best one.

CEI: Could you describe the positive outcomes and any negative ones?

Robert Ferguson: I judge that this has been successful as the course is very popular and is consistently oversubscribed. The end-of course evaluations continue to go up. More than anything else, it's the changes I can see in each lecture. The students are coming to lecture even though it's run in the earliest hour of the morning; attendance is continually high.

I attribute this method to just about all the successes my classes have had. And even if the students didn't give me 'the answer', they led me to a certain set of solutions that make the class what it is. There are lots of different ways we can try to improve things but this is the most economical, the biggest bang for the buck, because the students really do know what is going on. It's the old truism that if you want to know what is going on in the department, don't ask the faculty. The students have this kind of horizontal perspective and by the time they are in the third year, they have gone through so many hours of instruction, some of it good, some of it bad. Even those negative experiences are helpful. I think the buy-in is also important; even if they don't raise their hands and point out problems, they take the class and their education more seriously, more genuine. They say to themselves "it's different here. It isn't about the grades." It gets them tied up into the long-term goals and they respond positively.

The only bad thing is that it takes half of one class session to train them in the group Line-stop technique. There are also diminishing returns as you can't satisfy everybody. But I point this out to them when showing them their responses and going through what I will and will not respond to and explaining each case. And this gives them an appreciation of the decisions that I make behind the scenes, that I actually did consider these things. It takes a lot of their anger away. They still might not like the course but they're not mad at me as though I'm out to hurt them or subvert their education.

CEI: If another faculty member were thinking of using this instructional method, what advice would you give?

Robert Ferguson: I would think about finding a way to integrate this into your area of expertise. Whatever we do, we have quality control procedures so we can make it relevant to the course material as opposed to end-of-course of evaluations. It can be used in Business classes in terms of organizational management, in Engineering in terms of problem posing and solving. So rather than just going through the motions of yet another teaching technique, make it relevant. Other than that I think it is important to keep it simple. It really has only a few ingredients: student empowerment, student buy-in, student experience, and instructor response.

CEI: Robert, thanks very much for sharing your experiences with the Line Stop technique.

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