Changing times for student assessment

October 3, 1997

Students marking their own work is surprisingly common in Scotland, reports Olga Wojtas

Dai Hounsell has confounded sceptics who warned him that teaching innovations had been stifled by the financial squeeze on universities. His research into changing student assessment methods in Scotland has uncovered more than 300 new developments. Its database has now been put on the Internet, while 124 initiatives have been published in a book, The Assessment Strategies in Scottish Higher Education Project Inventory.

A survey of teachers and senior administrators in all 22 Scottish higher education institutions, including the Open University, has uncovered examples of changes in assessment, including how students are being assessed, what is being assessed, when, where and by whom.

"I think to have well over 300 replies is more than encouraging, it's astonishing," Dr Hounsell says. "There are lots of imaginative, exciting, fresh things going on. But our impression is that a lot of these good things are unknown outside a department or even a degree programme. It is clear that most of them are adaptable: people down the corridor, people in other subjects and other faculties could benefit."

The team, from Edinburgh and Napier universities, was set up by the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals and backed by a grant from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. Dr Hounsell, co-director of Edinburgh University's centre for teaching, learning and assessment, said the assessment strategies had found it was an immense source of personal and professional satisfaction for staff to try something new and make it succeed.

"Although we might rightly be concerned about resources, and salaries not being as high as we think we deserve, job satisfaction is still a very important issue."

One of the project's surprise findings is that student self-assessment, seen by many as a radical move by a few pioneering individuals, is widespread, accounting for almost a quarter of reported initiatives.

"From a traditionalist point of view, it's a potential threat because it looks as though you're ceding authority to students and abrogating responsibility for judging the quality of their work," Dr Hounsell says.

But the issue is effective learning rather than power. It helps students gain a better understanding of assessment criteria, Dr Hounsell argues, and it is very rare to find any student awarding a mark which is not moderated by someone else.

"You're encouraging students to read one another's essays and lab reports and give feedback to one another. You've got them thinking about what constitutes work of high quality. There's an argument that if you can't recognise it, you can't produce it."

Group work has produced a range of assessment strategies. Some academics award a group mark, while others also mark an individual's contribution.

Some allow the group to identify members who do not pull their weight, with the ultimate sanction of having to do an alternative individual assignment or be deprived of the group mark.

Poster presentations are becoming increasingly popular. Students may be more reluctant to produce substandard work that goes on public display than when it is for their tutor's eyes only. Departments are often keen to keep the posters on their walls, offering an insight into their work to visitors, and helping next year's students.

"Nobody's ever done that with exam papers," Dr Hounsell says. "It stretches students' skills much more. Variety is very important for its own sake. If you're always writing the same kind of assignment, your skills may become very refined, but in a very narrow context."

Students arguably become better communicators by learning to communicate in a variety of ways. Some initiatives make them write for different audiences, and go beyond the traditional essay to a project proposal or a conference abstract.

There are inevitable fears about standards, Dr Hounsell acknowledges, with many academics still seeing traditional examination assessment as the gold standard, but a broader outlook is essential.

"Employers are going to say you've got to encourage these students to work in teams and evaluate how well they do that. Our students are being called on to be as good in their verbal skills as their oral skills. We must look for and reward different qualities in our students."

* Copies of the ASSHE Inventory can be ordered from the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, 0114 282 4211. The ASSHE database can be found at: http:///www.tla.ed.ac.uk/asshepages/ASSHEhome.html.

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