Praise due, in our assessment

October 22, 2004

Although it is common outside education to encounter a view that assessment must mean examinations, it is surprising and disturbing to find such a misunderstanding within your pages. Your report last week ("Middlesex abolishes exams for first-years") seriously misrepresents the decision by the university's academic board to move away from a reliance on exams for assessing students' first-year progress.

Assessment remains a vital part of the education of all first-year students, but there is no good reason for supposing that examinations are the only, or even the best, way of recognising achievement.

Middlesex University is moving away from formal examinations for first-year students for very good educational reasons. First, there is plenty of evidence that examinations are not a particularly good way of assessing the range of students' learning, and in fact there are subjects, such as art, design or performing arts, where they have always been recognised as being inappropriate.

Second, many subjects, such as teaching and nursing, are competency-based, and the most appropriate way to assess these practice-based subjects is in the workplace. Third, exams, occurring as they do at the end of modules, provide no opportunities for students to receive useful and timely feedback on their progress.

Our experience, supported by a considerable body of educational literature, suggests that students need useful and timely feedback to consolidate their learning, and that is particularly the case during their first year of study. Taking account of the needs of students and selecting effective and efficient assessment methods to contribute more to their learning should be at the forefront of any university's concerns, and a controlled and monitored experiment such as this should be recognised as good practice. As Middlesex continues to achieve outstanding outcomes from a range of quality audits and inspections, we will continue to innovate to ensure that our students have every opportunity to achieve their potential.

Barry Jackson
Director of learning development
Middlesex University

Richard Tufnell
Dean, School of Lifelong Learning and Education
Middlesex University

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