Video Assessment - Writing Computer Code

Lecturer/Academic Dr Tim Downing (
Subject 5 ECTS Module on Pathogen Genomics
Discipline Biotechnology
Level Third-year Undergraduate Students - Level 8
Class Size circa. 40 students
Mode of Delivery Online


What is the module?

It is a specialised module taken by Genetics & Cell Biology students in the School of Biotechnology. The module covers practical and theoretical aspects of bacterial and viral genomes, their evolution, and in particular how to analyse their genomes. Since the pandemic, this has focused on Sars-Cov-2 as a pressing example of how genome analysis can be useful to tackle infectious diseases.

What is the overall assessment approach in this module?

The module was structured over ten weeks with a mixed assessment approach, including CA accounting for 60% of marks. There is also a pretty intensive end-of-semester 1-hour open-book in-class test to encourage students to embrace and engage with the wider concepts and application of theory in this module. This includes assessing key learning outcomes like genome assembly theory and also applied problems like how they might investigate antibiotic resistance genes in hospital effluent water. This means they can't just follow instructions in the practicals and must consider the context in which they are applying particular protocols. In some labs, students rush through to just "get it done" and that's not recommended.

The CA (Continuous Assessment) component was assessed in fortnightly blocks with 5 assignments worth 12% each. The first of these is being discussed here which is a video of the student themselves writing computer code. The other 4 assignments were an exploration of the fundamentals of genome analysis: first on how to do quality control of their assigned Sars-Cov-2 genome samples, second on how to assemble those QC'd genomes, third on how to identify mutations within their genomes, and then fourth how to construct a phylogenetic tree from their mutation results.

What assessment design did you use to promote academic integrity?

Writing computer code is an interesting area of academic integrity. One of the best ways to learn is to co-opt others’ scripts and repurpose them to another problem. Traditional interpretations of plagiarism are ineffective - scripts with high similarity to each other can be functionally similar or wildly different. Moreover, much of what I teach and the examples I give to students is not originally from me. Coding can appear solitary but really you are working within a community and learning from one another. I even encouraged students to get feedback from one another on how to improve before submitting, of course with the obvious provisos on their code and comments and words being their own.

What matters is understanding, and that students can communicate and illustrate that they comprehend the variables, the lines of code, and the functions they are using. A video with audio commentary as well as the original scripts and associated comments within them all together gives students wide scope to illustrate their understanding. When students talk their way through their code it is easy to identify their progress and stage of learning.

The preparation was relatively minimal because we had been working on learning to write code in R and in a Unix environment for the previous fortnight. Also, the students did more basic modules covering these already in first and second year. With the changes in video communication and video uploading over the past 2 years, the students are readily familiar with how to record video commentary and their screens. The students were told at the start of the first week that they would be assessed this way, so they knew what they would have to do for this portion of the course.

The Assignment instructions were pretty standard, including examples of topics they could cover. They were asked to cover just a few. They were given a time limit for the total video length of ten minutes. Within that time span, they were asked to do two videos: one on RStudio, and another on Unix. They also submitted the code scripts they used in the videos, including comments. The contents, video lengths, code, and commands were up to them. This open-ended approach was quite deliberate. I also highlighted how employers might be interested in assessing coding skills via a video recording to give another motivation for learning.

How did your students respond to this assessment approach?

They were initially a bit hesitant but appeared to like doing it afterward. The open-ended scope made each video unique and many of the examples within them were very creative and original. It is pleasing as a lecturer to be confident that each submission is entirely the student's own work - in science subjects, the requirements of lab protocols can mean that students produce very descriptive technical reports because they think this is what we want to see. Flexibility within this assignment let them do more diverse things. Many of them used Loop Reflect for this assignment, a student portal for a long-term learning portfolio that I hope will encourage them to focus on their learning progress, rather than "why did I lose marks".

What advice would I give to other academics who would like to try this approach?

Video submissions can play an important role in illustrating authenticity and facilitating more originality. In my opinion, they are best implemented as one component of mixed and integrated assessment approach. Although the students may be uneasy initially, my instinct is that students are more familiar with videos than staff. It was the most satisfying aspect of the module for me this year. I also noted that the feedback was generally more positive this year and that the video assignment was certainly mentioned. Our students will face numerous instances where they have to deliver via video presentation either live or as a video recording, so getting them familiar with this approach is beneficial. Diverse assessment approaches are increasingly important in motivating, measuring, and validating students' understanding. Video assessments open up more avenues for peer assessment and learning. For instance, I can play one of these videos (with permission of course) to next year's cohort to give them ideas on what they could do.

Additional resources that might be helpful:

Link to podcast conversation about this assessment approach with Dr. Tim Downing



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