Don't weed out, help students blossom

September 7, 2007

Universities should not use assessment to "weed out" failures, but "as a force for promoting attainment for everybody", a conference of academics will hear next week.

Liz McDowell, professor of academic practice at Northumbria University, will argue at Coventry University's "academic futures" conference that the university sector must "remove the idea that some students have to fail in order to somehow maintain standards".

She told The Times Higher : "Some people still see assessment as something that is all about measurement, about weeding people out and identifying the best.

"There is another discourse that says assessment can be used as a force for promoting attainment for everybody. If we want a knowledge society, we have to move away from weeding people out to raising the standard for all," she added.

She pointed to medical schools, where students' degrees are not classified. "A medical degree is a mark of your competence to practise as a doctor," she said.

Professor McDowell, director of Northumbria's Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in Assessment for Learning, has been researching the impact of assessment on students since 1994. Recent research, on 40 academic staff, suggests that despite innovation in assessment methods, university culture underpinning assessment still sees it as a means of selection.

Professor McDowell said: "There has been a vast amount of innovation but we are starting to question if it has achieved anything significant."

Proposals to scrap the degree classification scheme, made by the Burgess group on measuring student achievement, could help change the culture, she said.

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