Just 'apply', don't 'understand'

November 23, 2001

Guidelines now tell academics which words to use, writes Adamantios Diamantopoulos.

The recent article by Dennis Hayes in The THES ("Tongues truly tied", October 28) made a passionate plea for preserving academic freedom. While this is undoubtedly a worthy and noble cause, it may already be too late. In my view, academic freedom has long been eroded in UK higher education.

In an environment of "students-as-customers", "access-for-all", "league-tables-are-everything", academics are not even allowed to use words of their own choosing in their course specifications. In order to ensure that "quality standards" are adhered to and "aims" and "learning outcomes" properly distinguished, there are acceptable "good" words that an academic can incorporate in his or her course documentation and unacceptable "bad" words.

For example, one set of guidelines I recently came across decrees that "knowledge and understanding intended learning outcomes... should all begin with verbs which indicate the level of achievement expected. Appropriate verbs include: Describe, Apply, Analyse, Compare, Assess,... (25 "acceptable" words are listed). It is not acceptable to use the verbs Understand or Appreciate or similar, as these are too general and vague, without sufficient precision to indicate the level of achievement expected or style of assessment that would be appropriate."

As long as students can show that they can do something, all is well; whether they understand what they do or why they are doing it, is apparently not something we should be too concerned about in universities.

In fact, there are several words that would probably never make it onto the "approved list", not least because it would be difficult to tie them explicitly to formal assessment: "enlighten", "reason", "think", "conceptualise", "discover", "speculate", "theorise" or "introspect", for example.

Although academic departments probably feel forced to issue such oppressive guidelines to their staff to avoid falling foul of the thought police (aka the Quality Assurance Agency), there are serious side-effects to consider.

First, the "censoring" of words in course documentation is a direct insult to the intellect and professional competence of an academic. If academics are indeed deemed incapable, for whatever reason, of communicating what their courses are all about to their students, then surely they must be deemed incapable of teaching and assessing those courses - in which case they should be sacked.

Second, in this specific case, such "censorship" results in a truly bizarre causal relation between course objectives and assessment. Most academics would agree that it is the former that should drive the latter and not the other way round. However, the same set of guidelines referred to above state that "a good test of a knowledge and understanding intended learning outcome is whether its opening phrase matches the opening phrase of some past or proposed question on an exam paper for this module". In other words, one is encouraged to use the mode of assessment as a frame of reference for setting one's course objectives (sorry, "intended learning outcomes").

Just as I thought that things could not get any worse, I came across a two-page, ten-point document on how to set coursework assignment limits (ie, word or page counts). We will be getting guidelines on how to spell our names next, although, in my case at least, these may prove useful.

Adamantios Diamantopoulos is professor of marketing and business research at Loughborough University.

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