Uniform alignments

November 27, 2014

Chris Rust’s article “Unknown qualities” (Features, 13 November) raises interesting questions about UK degree standards.

Why shouldn’t universities be exposed to the same levels of scrutiny as schools, especially considering the significant amount of money being spent on tuition fees each year? In the schools sector, a great deal of energy has gone into ensuring that the different accreditation bodies have comparable standards. For example, exam papers, questions and grading systems across different awarding bodies are compared using an approach called “comparative judgement”. In harnessing an assessor’s ability to make professional judgements, this ensures that a pupil who receives a grade A in maths from Edexcel would also receive the same grade from AQA.

Such an approach would need to scale up when it comes to degrees as each university is its own awarding body. However, assessment technology allows institutions to deploy an adaptive and collaborative web-enabled version. This would provide universities with a highly reliable and scalable way to support summative judgement across a wide variety of coursework.

With the rise in tuition fees, it seems only reasonable that we begin to see a more comparable degree system. Improving grading standards in degrees will mean that students can make a more informed decision on where to study and that they will receive an accurate grade reflecting their abilities and efforts.

Karim Derrick
Chief operating officer, TAG Assessment


Assessment has a range of powerful impacts on students and their teachers. What should be our priorities in addressing the various functions that assessment needs to serve?

Discussing the lack of precise comparability of degree classifications, Chris Rust proposes that sustained interaction in cultivated communities of practice might ameliorate the situation.

In a sector with limited resources, is this the right priority?

An alternative aspiration for improvement in assessment would focus more explicitly on using assessment strategically to develop effective student learning processes. The “assessment for learning” movement, of which Rust is a part, has developed some momentum but still needs more sustained implementation.

A key aspect of “assessment for learning” is designing and implementing assessment tasks that encourage students to adopt deep approaches to learning and produce worthwhile learning outcomes. Good assessment tasks mirror real-life uses of the discipline and allow some flexibility and choice.

Another crucial element is the use of feedback to promote student engagement. We need feedback that is embedded within the teaching of a module rather than provided after its conclusion. Timely dialogues including online or peer feedback can be facilitated, even in large classes, by a skilful and resourceful teacher.

This brings us to a further facilitating strand: the development of assessment literacy.

We need assessment-literate teachers who have a reasonably sophisticated conception of assessment-task design as well as an awareness of methods to promote student engagement with feedback.

In turn, we need to develop feedback literacy among students so that they develop their capacity to act on feedback as part of self-evaluating their own work.

Assessment needs to provide robust grades for certification, but also the right kinds of student learning. Rust’s article focuses on the former; my thinking more on the latter. Both are desirable although enduringly difficult to attain. Perhaps it is a question of priority.

David Carless
Professor of educational assessment
University of Hong Kong

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