Group says marking impedes learning

Academics' manifesto calls for reform to end obsession with grades. Rebecca Attwood reports

April 24, 2008

Thirty-four academics are backing a manifesto calling for far-reaching change to the way universities test and assess their students.

Obsession with marks and grades severely limits what students learn at university by encouraging them to adopt a "strategic" approach to their studies, they warned this week.

The Weston Manor group, whose members are drawn from universities across the UK, argues that intense focus on measuring and validating work with marks comes at the expense of helping students learn.

Universities' assessment of students was "in crisis", said Colin Bryson, learning and teaching co-ordinator at Nottingham Business School and a group member. "The need to get a 'good degree' makes assessment the main driver for students - there is too much focus on the narrow purpose of attaining a grade, the magical 2:1. The key purpose of assessment - learning - gets lost."

Dr Bryson said it was a mistake to think that students would engage with a task only if it involved summative marks. "Too much focus on marks alienates students from education and teachers," he said.

The group includes Sally Brown, pro vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University; Mantz Yorke, visiting professor of education at Lancaster University; and Jude Carroll and Chris Rust of Oxford Brookes University. It points out that the National Student Survey shows assessment to be the area with which students are least satisfied and that the Burgess report on student achievement concluded that assessment "could be more fit for purpose". Research has also highlighted the unreliability of marking.

Graham Gibbs, a member of the group and senior visiting fellow at the University of Oxford's Learning Institute, said assessment was teachers' main lever "to change the way students study and get them to put effort into the right things".

However, the current system was ineffective, he said. "Students are not working hard enough. Existing assessment systems are not capturing the quantity and quality of student effort that is required for good learning outcomes."

Studies have shown feedback to be the most influential, but also the most neglected, teaching practice, Professor Gibbs said. As student numbers have risen, assessment practices have "gradually been thinned out to the point that adequate and timely feedback ... is now an endangered species in many contexts".

The group says too much time is devoted to marking and to ensuring its reliability. "You don't need to assess students 100 times to produce a meaningful degree classification - about ten times is quite sufficient," Professor Gibbs said. "Most people are spending their academic time on the wrong bit of assessment."

Dr Bryson agreed. "In expanded higher education, marking loads can be gigantic ... meeting the demands of quality assurance means teachers spend too little time on good feedback sessions, fostering good trust relationships with students and enhancing their learning and teaching."

Stephen Swithenby, director of the Centre for Open Learning of Mathematics, Science, Computing and Technology at The Open University, said that in many people's minds assessment was only about checking what students have achieved. "To do that efficiently, you go into circumscribed and simple methods of assessment that don't match the complexity of what we are asking people to become skilled in," he said.

Marks "utterly dominated" thinking, leading students to neglect accompanying comments, Professor Swithenby said. "We need to take marks away where we can to help students focus on the rich feedback they are getting. I'm not saying get rid of exams, but universities should not make the exam style drive their assessment procedures."

Universities must do more to explain how assessment and learning are connected, he added. "Students need to be helped to understand how much they gain from the assessment process rather than regarding it as just the hurdle."

Margaret Price, director of ASKe, the Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oxford Brookes, said: "We hope this manifesto will lead to desperately needed changes in policy and practice."


Key points from "Assessment standards: a manifesto for change"

  • Put more emphasis "on assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning";
  • Move beyond systems focused on marks and grades towards assessment of the achievement of programme outcomes;
  • Recognise that standards may be difficult to articulate explicitly;
  • Develop assessment and feedback processes that engage staff and students in dialogue about standards;
  • Make discussion of standards between staff and students an integral part of course design and the learning process;
  • Establish forums for the development and sharing of standards within and between disciplinary and professional communities.

See 'Related files' box on right for the complete manifesto and full list of group members

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