A Coursework Assessment that Fosters Independent Learning and Rewards Creativity

Prof. Kathy Rastle, Department of Psychology

College Excellence Teaching Prize 2008

One key aim of Conceptual Issues in Psychology is to introduce students to the central tenets of Behaviourism and Cognitive Psychology – these being the paradigms with the most influence over psychological practice during the past century. The basic idea is that B.F Skinner is treated as the ‘model’ behaviourist while D. Broadbent is treated as the ‘model’ cognitive psychologist.  These paradigms (behaviourism and cognitive psychology) can be used to understand almost any topic of psychological study. However, in order to apply these paradigms to various psychological topics, one really needs to understand them deeply (much more deeply than would be the case if the assessment asked students simply to ‘compare and contrast’ the paradigms).


In this coursework assessment students were required to construct a conversation between B.F. Skinner and D.Broadbent on any topic in Psychology and in any format. It encouraged independent study and rewarded originality and creativity, requiring them to engage with the material more intensely than is typically the case in our other courses. This assessment recognized and rewarded student diversity in two ways.  First, students were able to demonstrate their learning of these paradigms in relation to a content area that they personally found interesting.  Thus, the assessments that I received dealt with topics ranging from crime and punishment to compulsive overeating, and from child language development to the simple act of picking up a pencil.  Second, students were rewarded for originality and creativity in the construction of the conversation.  The conversation could be in any form (e.g., a series of letters, a debate, a play, an opera), could be delivered in any medium (e.g., typed on normal paper, handwritten on personalized stationary, as an audio recording or video), and could be in any setting (e.g., on an airplane being hijacked by terrorists, on the set of East Enders, at an academic conference), so students really were able to put their own individual stamp onto their work, and thus tailor the assessment to demonstrate their individual talents. 


Three kinds of evidence point to a beneficial effect of this assessment on student learning: (a) student feedback; (b) student performance; and (c) external evaluation. 


       (a) Specific comments on the coursework assessment included “The coursework essay provided a wonderful opportunity to implement more creative and personal aspects, which was highly appreciated and gratifying”“All coursework should aim to excite on an intellectual level in this way”; “The coursework was interesting, innovative, and stimulating”“Thought the application of theory to a practical example involved in the coursework was excellent and recommend it is continued next year”.


      (b) Student performance on this assessment was outstanding, in spite of the fact that it was extremely challenging. I was always astonished when I marked these projects at the various talents amongst our students, at their originality, and at their ability to deliver excellent work when really stretched. 


      (c) This coursework assessment was continually identified by our external examiners as an example of good practice.  Further, this course was highlighted by the British Psychological Society accreditation team as one of the four areas of particularly good practice across the whole of our undergraduate programme.


See other case studies on our Assessment and Feedback page