Concern over bid to cut exams

June 2, 2006

De Montfort is again facing criticism after leaked e-mails show disquiet over attempts to reduce assessment. Phil Baty reports.

De Montfort University was criticised this week as a leaked series of e-mails revealed how it moved to cut the number of exams in one department.

In an e-mail to Gillian Grant, dean of the faculty of health and life sciences, Eugene Critchlow, the university's academic registrar, complains of "exam overload" in the psychology department.

In March, Dr Critchlow e-mailed Professor Grant to complain that some first-year psychology students were due to sit "no less than seven examinations this May".

He writes: "One of the purposes of the huge curriculum redesign exercise we engaged in... was to reduce the amount of assessment and formal examination specifically."

Professor Grant then passed the e-mail on to psychology staff, asking them to "address this issue with immediate effect".

It was explained that it would be impossible to change the scheduled and formally approved exam programme "at this stage" - only weeks before the exams were due to be sat.

One staff member said: "I am at a loss [as to how] anything can be changed."

The university insisted this week that the exams had gone ahead as planned last month and said that, in general, "there was no question of a reduction of assessment or formal examination".

One member of staff in the department of psychology said that the scheduled level of examination was entirely appropriate and had been approved at a recent formal validation of the course.

"You can't make proper judgments on students' performance just by plucking the number of exams out of the air," he said.

DMU implemented major curriculum reforms in 2004-05, moving from a two-semester academic year to a more traditional three-term year. Such moves, implemented elsewhere in the sector, have the effect of introducing fewer but longer courses that tend to reduce the exam burden.

DMU has come in for criticism because Dr Critchlow stated that the curriculum reforms were designed specifically to reduce the number of formal examinations.

Professor Grant's subsequent attempts to change the exam arrangements at the eleventh hour were also attacked.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, said: "The university's administration seems desperate to reduce the amount of examining and you have to wonder why.

"Assessment overload can be a problem, but the key question, however, is not how much (assessment there is) but how good is the examining process?

"Ditching exams rather than coursework is not the obvious way to ensure quality."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, said: "It is interesting to note that the registrar seems to regard exams and assessments as extraneous to the education of undergraduates.

"It is perceived as an unreasonable burden rather than experiences through which students can develop their grasp of a subject."

A DMU spokesman said: "There is not a question about reduction of assessment or formal examination." He said the move to introduce terms instead of semesters benefited student learning and improved teaching by, for instance, providing more rigorous and in-depth courses.

"The level of assessment and examination carried out is comparable to other universities that have a year-long term-based programme," he added.

The e-mail revelations come on top of other issues attracting attention to DMU's psychology department.

Psychology head Tony Cassidy remains suspended pending disciplinary action after he sent an e-mail to his department warning them they were about to lose accreditation from the field's professional body, the British Psychological Society, over inadequate staffing levels.

Fifteen psychology staff recently wrote a letter to Philip Tasker, the vice-chancellor, supporting Professor Cassidy and criticising the loss of accreditation. The letter says: "We lack confidence in the senior management of psychology at faculty level."

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