A respect for marks

Looking back on her lifelong love of teaching, Sally Brown believes that well-designed assessment is one of pedagogy's greatest tools

October 16, 2008

As a little girl I had two great pleasures: telling stories and playing schools. In 37 years I've taught in just about every educational sector, from playgroups to universities. I regard teaching as the thing I have the most fun doing professionally and I still love telling, reading and writing stories.

Early in my teaching career I specialised in difficult and disruptive pupils, particularly young men. On my first teaching practice in Newcastle a pupil threw a lit firework into the classroom and there have been plenty of pyrotechnics since then.

Originally I taught English but I moved into teaching drama, particularly the therapeutic kind, having worked briefly with the legendary educational drama expert Dorothy Heathcote.

My pupils have included school refusers, serious prison offenders, young men on probation and a terrific bunch of young people who, to their horror, found themselves enduring an extra year of schooling owing to the Raising of the School Leaving Age initiative in the 1970s.

I started working in higher education as a tutor for The Open University when I was pregnant with my second child. I learnt an amazing amount about good teaching and assessment practice from their training and mentoring practices. A decade or more working part time in further and higher education followed, teaching, inter alia, communications, drama, creative writing and study skills.

I became progressively more interested in how students are taught and particularly in how they are assessed in higher education, so I became an educational developer and then head of quality enhancement at Newcastle Polytechnic. During this time I was interim head of its Enterprise in Higher Education programme.

This was a government initiative to foster students' entrepreneurialism, which we, like many institutions, channelled into fostering students' learning and other skills. The Department for Education and Skills supported several successful EHE universities to work closely with groundbreaking US pedagogic pioneers Alverno College, and many UK senior managers grew their capabilities this way. I certainly found Alverno's approach to developing students inspirational and life-changing.

When I first started to think seriously about how we could improve assessment, learning and teaching, two of the most powerful influences on my practice were Graham Gibbs and Phil Race, both of whom gave me lots of opportunities and the confidence to succeed.

Gibbs established the Oxford Centre for Staff Development and involved me in initiatives such as the national Teaching More Students project, designed to support tutors coping with the massification of higher education. Race convinced me, by stealth, that I was capable of co-authoring books, which was an act of generosity that transformed him from a colleague to a friend. Having found my own authorial voice through his support, it led to a productive long-term writing partnership (and indeed marriage). Since then I've regularly written and edited books with others, to pass the favour on.

I've always been fascinated by the "so-what factor", whether working on quality issues or researching educational practices. I am always looking for angles on how to improve matters, rather than just looking at the raw numbers themselves. As the highly influential assessment pioneer and my co-author, the late Peter Knight, used to say: "You don't fatten pigs by weighing them."

So if we want assessment to be fit for purpose, I argue, we need to interrogate its design to make sure each assignment earns its keep. I propose asking five questions when designing any assignment: What is the purpose of this particular assessment? What are we assessing? How can we assess it? Who is best placed to undertake the assessment? And when should we assess?

Only when we know the precise purpose for any assignment (for example, as formative guidance for students new to a programme or as a summative evaluation of fitness for practice) can we decide which methods and approaches are best for the occasion.

Only when we are sure what it is we are assessing (such as process or outcomes, ability to work in a team or integration of theory with practice) can we decide who is best placed to assess.

Peer assessment works best to evaluate relative contributions to group tasks and self-assessment works well to determine individual growth in confidence, and employers and clients are often best placed to measure competence and capability in practical settings. Summative assessment should never be entirely end-point and formative assessment should happen when students can still benefit from feedback.

I became particularly interested in how assessment can work for or against students and how it can be integrated with learning, instead of being seen as an afterthought. Students take cues from the tasks set, and the time they spend on a task during their studies is determined largely by assignments.

I remember arguing with my long-suffering younger son - when I asked him whether he had work to do for his course, he said: "No Mum, no assignments this week."

I tried to explain that the work of the course was so much more than just assignments. Our conversation brought it home to me that students often see the assignments as the exclusive work of university study, neglecting the need for independent learning.

It's apparent to me that assessment requirements shape student behaviour. When I was teaching communications studies to electrical engineers in the 1980s, the lads (for they were almost always lads) in new classes used to ask me: "Is this class assessed?" When I replied in the affirmative, they would take their trainers off the desks and ask: "And will the marks count towards the final grade?" Only when I told them this was the case did they take their coats off and start to pay attention. Students follow the cues we give them about what we regard as important.

They seem to regard marks as if they were money, asking: "How much is this assignment worth?" and: "How much should I invest in this?" If we want to influence student behaviour we need to indicate the value we place on certain types of activity by weighting marks towards what we regard as important.

If we want students to behave like effective learners, for example by selecting and using relevant sources rather than just downloading stuff from the web, we need to privilege these behaviours by according them marks. Rewarding slovenly scholarship is daft. If we set predictable tasks, we should not be surprised when students plagiarise.

I spent five years working at the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (later merged with the Higher Education Academy), and it was an amazing opportunity to work at a national level. In that time I visited most UK higher education institutions and worked with generous and creative people, both colleagues and ILTHE members.

I am now provost and pro vice-chancellor for assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University (note the order, ALT, with assessment coming first, since I argue that if you get that right, most other things follow on). It's great to have strategic leadership for an area that is my passion. Now I am charged with making positive pedagogic change happen, having for years advised other people on how to do it. I still do some classroom teaching, though, including pre-masters classes with international students, where I tell stories about the kinds of surprises students experience when studying away from home.

International students studying in the UK are often astonished by the informality of staff-student relationships, and they find it very odd when UK students address their tutors by their first names.

Elsewhere, the teacher's role is closer to a parent's, so some are shocked to find that a ten-minute appointment is all they can expect in terms of individual attention. For students used to doing 1,000-word assignments back home, writing much longer essays in a second language can be tough. American students are especially horrified by grading systems where a B is regarded as a reasonable mark: back home, good students expect As.

When UK students study abroad, they are frequently shocked by the extensive use of oral assessments at undergraduate level in Northern Europe and by seven-hour examinations. The extent to which multiple-choice exams are used elsewhere can surprise them too, as can the immensity of lecture theatres. My god-daughter studying in Italy found the fees minuscule, but discovered that what she got for her money was minimal too: lectures with more than 1,000 students and no tutorial support unless she paid extra for it. This is why clarifying expectations for all is crucial.

However, the main place where I indulge my passion for learning and teaching (and particularly assessment) is in workshops and keynotes, for both UK and international audiences. I get a real buzz from working an audience, making them laugh while making them think, and telling them stories that illustrate my key points.

I enjoy running sessions annually in at least half a dozen countries to update my own knowledge of international practices. In front of live audiences, I use all the skills I honed in my early career to share my enthusiasm for improving student learning.

I am personally very committed to fostering cross-cultural capability. My grandfather Ernest Giles returned from the First World War, a prisoner-of-war camp survivor and recipient of the Military Cross, as a determined internationalist who was committed to working for peace. Putting his commitment into practice, he sent my teenaged father Peter to live in Germany in 1938 so that he could learn German. He was both horrified and bemused by events he witnessed there.

Subsequently, my father joined the British Army and was invalided out with polio while serving in North Africa. After intensive rehabilitation, he was re-conscripted as a fluent German speaker to run a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers. He wanted his daughters to grow up as Europeans, so aged 13 I was sent on school exchanges to Germany and every school year thereafter to France.

I often use my language learning experiences as an illustration of pedagogic issues: my French is fluent but desperately ungrammatical as I received lots of encouragement from my host family for speaking French, but rarely had the formative guidance on grammar that would have led to accuracy of expression.

Neither of my parents went to university. When I went, my mother stipulated four rules: going there was non-negotiable, no overdrafts, no babies and I had to graduate (and get the photo for the mantelpiece).

My mother left school at 14 and volunteered as soon as possible to serve in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during the war. The Army, she said, was her university. There she learnt how to strip down and reassemble a lorry engine and to drive vehicles without synchromesh, a skill that requires the driver to judge when the teeth in the gearbox are spinning at more or less the same speed.

But apart from evening classes she had no further formal education. Clearly her three daughters experienced higher education at least in part on her behalf.

My father started a part-time degree before the war, but because he was a twin and his parents could afford to educate only one of them, most unusually for those times they paid for his sister to study, since they argued that men had sufficient life advantages.

After the war, he was too disabled to hold down a challenging job as well as study part time, so he never graduated. Both our parents would have been proud that all three daughters now work in universities: Pam Sherlock at the University of Salford, Wendy Stainton Rogers at The Open University and me at Leeds Met.

I am zealous about maximising opportunities for disadvantaged students in higher education, improving student retention and developing flexible approaches to curriculum delivery. Both of my now-successful sons Matt and Pete had false starts at university and there is no greater source of pride for a mother than to see her progeny eventually succeed, just as there is no greater pain than to see them devastated and discouraged by negative experiences.

So what next? Universities such as mine are fully committed to putting students at the heart of all we do, and my job is to energise and engage staff to make higher education transformative. That's what I want to do for the rest of my career. I'm still working on my store of stories and I take every opportunity to share them to help to make more people as passionate about assessment, learning and teaching as I am myself.

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