Testing time for ideas

Assessment Matters in Higher Education
December 10, 1999

There are elements of the samizdat publication about this book, which offers a series of contributions from the chalkface about how innovative assessment can be used to improve on the traditional unseen examination.

The kinds of assessments covered are peer, group-based, practice-based and oral. The contributions vary from case studies, some of them quite tiny, to broader reflections on the nature of assessment in the modern university.

There are notable pieces by Sally Brown, Liz McDowell and Kay Sambell and by Angela Brew that set out both a framework within which innovative approaches to assessment can be considered and, in the case of Brew, a fairly radical realignment of the role of assessor and student. But nearly all the authors feel the need to criticise traditional methods and most imply that they are part of a covert assessment revolution. There is a sense of a small like minded group conversing with one another outside the conventional examining processes rather than a mainstream dialogue about how universities should assess students in a mass higher education system.

The essential case that all the authors would subscribe to is well set out by Brew, that "assessment and learning must increasingly be seen as one and the same activity, assessment must become an integral part of the learning process". Angela Glasner sees a combination of "a more consumer-oriented student" and "a standards-defining academia" as providing the "evolutionary context in which assessment is inextricably linked to learning", but agrees that we are a long way from this kind of paradigm shift.

The evidence provided suggests that innovative approaches to assessment are often very time-consuming, and therefore costly, and are often regarded with less than enthusiasm by students. The accounts of students' reactions to peer assessment of their work speak volumes for the natural conservatism of the student body.

There is little doubt that while some of this movement derives from a strong feeling that in a higher education system more devoted to lifelong learning and to students for whom competencies have a higher value than pure knowledge, new approaches are required; but it is also "driven by a belief that new forms of self assessment and peer assessment can achieve savings in staff time". It is probably no accident that most of the authors come from universities with a considerable commitment to mature students where student:staff ratios are also high. To that extent, there may be a polarisation of attitudes between them and university teachers in more traditional universities, where the majority of students enter straight from school. This polarisation only emphasises the diversity of higher education today and the increasing difficulty of quality-assessment processes seeking to comprehend such a broad church.

There is no denying, however, that underlying some of the contributions is a radical set of ideas. Assessment, we are told, illustrates a power relationship; it should be something not "done to students" but "done with students", where "teachers share the process of assessment with students, sharing power and leading students to take on the authority to assess themselves". The accounts of innovative assessment processes are presented with honesty, but the reader is forced to ask what the students themselves thought of it all. Do students welcome a break from traditional assessment or do they want to benchmark themselves against national standards and classifications?

In a thoughtful set of criteria that should be satisfied before new assessment approaches are embarked upon, Phil Race lays down some useful limits to experimentation. This book is better at raising questions than providing answers, but the questions are important and deserve discussion.

Michael Shattock is visiting professor, the Institute of Education.

Assessment Matters in Higher Education

Author - Sally Brown and Angela Glasner
ISBN - 0 333 20242 X and 20243 8
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00 and £22.50
Pages - 210

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