Lecturers who are assessing practical skills must be scrupulously clear about the criteria being used, and must be confident that any other assessor should come to the same evaluation given the same evidence, according to Sally Brown, co-author of Assessing Skills and Practice with Ruth Pickford.
Particular vigilance against bias is necessary, because practical assignments can rarely be marked anonymously. It is important to resist the urge to mark up students who normally do better or mark down those who have performed uncharacteristically well. Devise marking criteria that can assess individual and group work, and be clear about when they are expected to collaborate or not.
Brown and Pickford's advice is to think about how you are going to assess these skills as soon as you begin designing a course, so that practice opportunities can be built in. Write learning outcomes that lend themselves easily to practical assessment so that both students and fellow markers understand what is required. You must also make sure you are measuring exactly what you intend to measure.
Paul Kleiman, deputy director of Palatine, the Higher Education Academy's subject centre for dance, drama and music, says that if you are simply measuring competence then the assessment should focus on whether students can do what they are supposed to do without worrying how they got there. But measuring learning requires you to find a way “not only to get at and assess the process but also to enable students to articulate their understanding of what they have achieved and how”.
Jude Carroll, deputy director of the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, says a useful way of measuring practical skills is to break them down into individual elements. The disadvantage is that you do not use skills in small bits, so students need the chance to practise them in realistic situations, such as placements.
David Nicol, director of the project Re-Engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education, argues that practical skills should always be assessed in a context as close as possible to that in which they will be used.
Peter Klappa, senior lecturer in biochemistry at Kent University, has tried to reconcile these two conflicting needs by getting students to carry out under exam conditions a practical that they have already tried before. At the end of the assessment, students produce a number, which they give examiners along with their name. Students get slightly different samples to prevent cheating and are able to resit if they fail. The intention is to test their ability to carry out a practical assignment accurately.
Liz McDowell, director of the Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Assessment for Learning at Northumbria University, says it is useful to focus on specific elements rather than to praise or criticise everything at once. She also suggests getting students to monitor their own skills development through self-review and peer-review checklists.
Nicol says engaging students in identifying their own assessment criteria is helpful because it gives them ownership. Establishing what the criteria should be early on means that everyone is clear about what is being judged.
Brown and Pickford suggest observing and reviewing performance on several occasions to assure consistency. They also advise keeping good systematic records for quality assurance and clarifying benchmarks and standards with fellow assessors.
McDowell recommends resisting the temptation to develop students’ skills first and letting them use them in a “real” situation only later. She says: “Students are more motivated and more likely genuinely to take skills on board if they learn them as part of a project, experiment or performance rather than in isolation.”
• Assessing Skills and Practice, by Sally Brown and Ruth Pickford, Routledge, 2006
• Palatine, the Higher Education Academy subject centre for dance, drama and music: www.palatine.heacademy.ac.uk
• Re-engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education: www.reap.ac.uk
• Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Assessment for Learning: http://northumbria.ac.uk/cetl_afl/