Lecturer lets candidates write questions to engender 'trust'. Phil Baty reports on the alternative assessment methods dividing opinion
An academic has revealed that he allowed his students to set their own final-year exam and to take their notes into the test.
Mike Reddy, a senior lecturer at the University of Wales, Newport, allowed this year's finalists to write the bulk of the questions on their exam paper for a module that forms part of a BAdegree in IT and modern languages. He also allowed them to openly consult their research notes throughout the two-hour exam.
Dr Reddy, one of a growing group of academics pioneering often radical alternative methods of student assessment, admitted the exercise was highly controversial. But he defended it on the grounds that it was an improvement on the common practice of simply recycling old exam papers that allowed students to easily guess the questions coming up, or of giving them "strong hints" about the content of the paper.
He said the exercise had engendered "trust and respect" among his students, who had "learnt a lot" from the experience.
Although an extreme example, Dr Reddy's exercise is just one of many cases where academics are rejecting reliance on traditional exams and essays and are implementing alternative assessment.
Proponents of "assessment for learning" argue that traditional assessments fail to engage students, encourage cheating, disadvantage non-traditional students and fail to test the types of skills and knowledge required in the real world by relying on a "tick box" approach.
But their alternative techniques - which include activities such as role-play, group work, assessment by student peers and the development of student portfolios - are dividing academics.
Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, this week said that Dr Reddy, who has published research papers on how he had involved students in their own assessment, was failing in his responsibilities as an assessor.
Professor Smithers called for degree exams to be "taken out of the hands of individual universities". He said: "Final degree exams are high stakes and competitive and should be carried out under invigilated standard conditions, preferably by examiners who do not know the candidates and can be as objective and dispassionate as possible.
"The trouble with many university exams these days is that the examiners are closely bound up with the students, and employers are increasingly reluctant to take the results at face value."
Dr Reddy, a member of the steering committee for the Government-funded Plagiarism Advisory Service, said he supported the work of Jude Carroll, an educational development consultant at Oxford Brookes University, an expert on student plagiarism.
Dr Caroll told The Times Higher : "What I advocate is getting students, when they see an assignment, to think, 'How can I make that?' rather than 'Where can I find that?'. You encourage this by designing tasks that can be generated only in this way.
"I have found over five years of working with my colleagues on changing assessment, I meet academics who genuinely cannot see that their assessment tasks are possible to find and copy. Those same assessors, with a bit of help, are intrigued to think about it differently. They pounce on alternatives."
Sally Brown, pro vice-chancellor for assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, said: "I bang on endlessly about the benefits of fit-for-purpose assessment.
"All assessment disadvantages someone - if you are very good at read-write learning styles, oral exams disadvantage you. My suggestion is to use a mixed diet of assessment so you are not always disadvantaging the same types of student.
"Traditional exams tend to be about writing down everything you can think of about a certain topic against the clock. It is very testing but whether it is testing what you are trying to test is another matter.
"People who defend traditional exams say that in the real world you have to work under pressure. But what kind of pressure? Not many jobs apart from journalism and academe require you to write very fast against the clock."
Speaking last week at the international plagiarism conference in Gateshead, Professor Brown said that she knew of one English degree assessed by no fewer than 247 essays and warned that this type of course all but invited students to cheat.
She said that as students had become "so good at plagiarism", it was up to institutions to design the temptation out of assessment.
'This might appear more controversial than it actually is'
Mike Reddy, senior lecturer in computing and engineering, at the University of Wales, Newport, said he found it "wonderfully refreshing" working with students to set their own exam questions for a module on 3D computer modelling, part of a BA in information technology and modern languages.
"I asked the students to look over previous papers... and we talked through why they were written in certain styles, what that meant in English, and how to go about answering them," he said.
"Then I set them the task of each writing two questions. I chose from those submitted the most representative of both the students' personal interests and the needs of the curriculum."
Dr Reddy rewrote the students' questions - "not that much work actually, as they did a good job" - and added a question of his own before putting the final draft before the students, "so we could discuss again what each was asking for and how the students would interpret them".
He said that he decided to allow students to take notes into the exam, as students already knew the questions they were going to be asked.
"This might appear more controversial than it actually is," he said. "Some people would suggest that an open-book, seen exam is in effect an essay, and therefore open to the usual abuse of plagiarism, etc. I would counter that by the fact that the students felt a trust and respect from our collaboration, and an ownership of the assessment process.
"Other lecturers might be concerned as to the value of an exam where the students know in advance what is being asked and can prepare.
"How is this any different from those strongly worded hints at the end of term? Or, worse, the fact that the whole school knows that an exam paper runs on a two or three-year cycle.
"In fact, the results this year were spread quite evenly across the spectrum. There were no cases of 'content abuse' and answers ranged from those with quoted citations to simple prose.
"We all learnt a lot. A very maturing process for all."