Letters – 28 March 2019

March 28, 2019

Assessment variety makes it harder to cheat

I must admit to some bewilderment at the wailing and gnashing of teeth by academics and their institutions when considering the impact of essay mills and contract cheating (“Impossible ascents, devious devices and difficult questions”, News, 21 March). Having worked in a number of UK universities, I can attest that there has been a systematic and deliberate move away from controlled assessment, such as examinations, and towards uncontrolled assessment, such as coursework. In my current institution, we are explicitly encouraged to change assessment from controlled to uncontrolled: from examination to coursework.

Clearly, examinations are not impervious to cheating, but they are far less susceptible to external interference than coursework when conducted properly.

I have heard a number of narratives used to frame this change that tend to focus on exams being purely knowledge-based assessments and lacking “real-world” relevance. Yet this very much depends on the quality of the examination rather than the type of assessment per se. In my experience, weaker students tend to perform more poorly in examinations, indicative at least of some face-validity for the assessment method.

The cynic in me would suggest that the student satisfaction agenda could be driving this change. In the rush to maintain student satisfaction at an acceptable level, we have removed something that students do not like. This leaves the door wide open for the current vigorous and profitable market in paid-for assignments, with all the associated damage to the validity of any university-level award.

As someone who teaches research methods in the social sciences, I often discuss using multiple methods to inform measurement of complex hypothetical constructs. The inclusion of more imaginative controlled assessment, beyond two essays in two hours, together with coursework, could reduce any systematic, long-term bias that can result if an award is made on the basis of paid work from someone other than the student.

Name and address provided

Unlimited benefits

The author of the letter “A safe space ceded” (21 March) disagrees with the decision of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge to change its admissions policy to admit younger students and men.

We understand that the decision taken by our governing body, after a careful and comprehensive consultation, may be difficult for some of our alumnae to come to terms with. But there is no desire to stop admitting mature women, nor to cease supporting their academic, personal and professional development. However, the increase in places that we can now offer means that we can apply our expertise to supporting outstanding students from additional under-represented groups, both men and women. They too can benefit from the college’s ethos. Indeed, one such group will be young women, whom we cannot admit at present, who are contemplating a career in STEM.

Members of our governing body overwhelmingly believed that this was the right decision given the desire to see access to Cambridge opened further, and our historical commitment to social mobility.

Dame Madeleine Atkins
President of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge

Some can’t escape

Peter Coveney has taken up a professorship in Amsterdam and advises academics to seek positions abroad (“UK scholars should not rely on their employers for rescue after Brexit”, Opinion, 21 March).

Good for him and other senior academics who have already secured international recognition and have the privilege to work where they want. Sadly, the same cannot be said about postdocs doing research only and having no job security, nor for junior lecturers, overloaded with teaching and grant applications but having little visibility. They support the academic pyramid, on top of which an established professor can proudly proclaim “every person for themselves”.

Via timeshighereducation.com

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