Mini Academic Conference for Students on 'The Other Side of Enlightenment: The 18th Century in Literature, Theory, and Film'

Dr James Smith, Department of English

College Excellence Teaching Prize, 2019

EN3126 is a third-year half unit running in the Spring term. After a conventional mid-term essay, its final assessment is a two-day conference held in the summer term, timetabled to be the last piece of academic activity the students do as undergraduates, as well as hopefully one of the most memorable.


The assessment process

Before the Easter break, students submit an abstract to the tutor (much as academics do to a conference organiser), outlining a research idea based on any aspect of the course’s content. Unlike conventional essays or exams, the students are not simply answering a question based on the syllabus, but are taking aspects of the syllabus as a prompt for their own individual engagement, before settling on a particular argument, idea, or discovery to present to the cohort. The tutor organises the abstracts into thematic panels, just as a conference organiser does for an academic conference.

During the summer term, students meet with the tutor to discuss their idea, but also to receive individualised coaching on public speaking and preparing a written piece to be presented (this is quite different from either the submitted essays or purely oral presentations students are accustomed to). A more advanced version of the project could organise opportunities for the students to see other academics speak, or to discuss how other academics approach the conference paper form.

To allow the tutor to see students’ references and to ensure a paper trail for the external examiner, students submit their script the day before the conference, although they are encouraged to extemporise and extrapolate as they wish on the day. It is stressed that the presentation on the day is the thing being assessed, and the paper submission is simply there for the tutor to see that the arguments being made are properly substantiated. They are also told that there will be the opportunity for them to improve their mark if they are particularly adept at fielding questions from the audience, or at contributing to discussion of other students’ papers.

On the day, students deliver their papers in panels of three, before a conventional group Q&A. One of the most startling aspects of the format is the maturity that students typically rise to during the Q&A. The questioning and discussion is as generous, interesting, and critical as any I’ve seen at a professional academic conference. It also means that students conclude the course by discussing topics from the entire syllabus, rather than simply on what they have elected to research for their own submission.


Evaluation and student feedback

Most students expressed some trepidation about this unfamiliar kind of assessment. But it had the effect of increasing the inclusiveness of the course. No students came into the assessment with preconceptions such as ‘I’m no good at exams’ or ‘such and such always does better than me on essays’. The most able students were on new ground as much as the less high achieving ones, leading to a democratising of confidence among the cohort. The flexibility of the range of ways students could do well in the exercise also had an inclusive effect: it was possible to thrive in original research, theoretical/philosophical speculation, original interpretation, charismatic presentation, or by being a quick-witted interlocutor in the Q&A, and students could choose to play to their strengths. No two ‘firsts’ were anything like each other.  

It is a common concern among academics that our responsibility to teach transferable skills and ‘employability’ is not always a natural fit to the academic scholarship we want to encourage and impart. The mini conference traversed this gap by promoting professionally transferable research and presentation skills in a way that couldn’t be closer to the ‘actual’ experience of presenting scholarly work. The conference is designed to cultivate a student mindset of, ‘in professional life, I must study and learn new techniques from a variety of sources’, rather than ‘the lecturer has given me all the necessary information and skills’ (C. Butcher et al, Designing Learning: From Module Outline to Effective Teaching (2006)).

To take a yet more directly ‘beneficial effect’: the mini conference assessment produced higher marks on average than conventional assessments. It appears the particular pressure of ‘performing’ their work in front of their peers motivated students to raise their game, while the sense that this was the final project of their degree might also have had an effect. The flexibility of the task also allowed some students who had not performed as well in exam and essay-based assessments in the past to approach assessment more on their own terms. Among the most dazzling and brilliantly presented pieces were from students whose grade average was not particularly high. Professor Judith Hawley, who was present at the conference, was highly praising of the quality of the talks and discussion, and was impressed to see individual students she was acquainted with performing higher than she had previously seen them.

Students were praising of the course content when student feedback was solicited at the end of the Spring term, but it was clear that what is good about it really ‘clicked’ during the conference exercise. Students felt their ideas were treated seriously in a way incomparable to any other part of the university experience. And each was allowed to speak as the expert in the room on their topic, not only during their presentation, but when something related to it came up elsewhere in the proceedings.



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