Hurdlers who stay the course

March 26, 1999

What is the best and fairest way to assess what students have learnt? Angela Glasner looks at the obstacles to innovation in marking and examining work

Assessment is placing a growing burden on staff and students. The shift from end-of-year exams alone to more continuous forms of assessment was heralded as a positive innovation. Yet the promise of a fairer, more workable system has failed to materialise. Why, and can we do something about it?

The central role assessment plays in the lives of students and academic staff has made it a fitting candidate for public scrutiny. Assessment has traditionally been omitted from any discussion of "teaching and learning" and tagged on to the end of curriculum planning with little reflection. It is not surprising, therefore, that there has been only modest change in our approaches to and methods of assessment.

Where the approach has changed, several factors appear to have contributed. For example, the introduction of study modules or units has led to a struggle to ensure students are not overassessed and the curriculum is not too segmented.

The expansion of higher education has challenged conventional approaches. Students now come from a variety of backgrounds and are of all ages.

This has led to a questioning of whether unitary assessment methods are fair. In the same way, the greater diversity in learning contexts has challenged the assumption that unseen exams and written essays are the best methods of assessment.

Teaching quality assessment has forced many staff to reflect for the first time on the purpose of the chosen methods and their effectiveness in measuring the learning outcomes.

The debate about deep as opposed to surface learning and changes in the school curriculum has also given staff further cause for thought and review.

However, a number of factors have made change slower and less innovative than might have been expected.

University regulations frequently circumscribe the balance between formal and written work and the form that the latter in particular may take. "Enabling" regulations permit mixed modes of assessment but endeavour to control the total student load of assessment by stipulating word lengths or reducing the length of end-of-session exams.

The way the role of the external examiner is understood, prescribed and played tends to encourage replication of assessment strategies rather than innovation. Summative assessment, the part of the process that counts, needs to be in a format that is accessible to the external examiner and to her/his judgement, whether it be moderation, assessment or monitoring.

Assessment approaches that are tenable with 20 students are under pressure with 120. Providing timely individual quality feedback on assignments becomes an almost unmanageable burden when the tutorial/seminar group size rises from 12 to 24.

The massification of higher education and the pressure of the declining unit of resource encourage the retention of assessment systems that are economical on staff time, for example, by reducing the need for marking or the amount of feedback students get about their performance.

Coursework brings its own problems. There is the question of its authenticity and authorship. Regulating authorship and controlling plagiarism are more easily achieved through formal examination at end of session.

Modularisation, often hand in hand with semesterisation, places added burdens on students.

For them, the assumption that "good assessment" shows an appropriate balance between formal exams and continuous assessment in ever smaller units of learning increases the number of hurdles they have to jump.

For staff, the burden is to erect the hurdles that ensure knowledge is demonstrable and all students are getting the right balance. Modularisation also generates pressure for some formal assurance that students studying a particular unit/module have learned something that may not be subsequently built on.

These competing pressures can result in the adherence to a familiar diet of assessment, albeit one with smaller portions: a shorter exam (one or two hours as opposed to three), and a shorter written assignment or fewer assessed in class tests or exercises. Regulations, again, often prescribe what is possible.

Staff are under other pressures. They are scholars and researchers, and the research assessment exercise comes round with a grinding regularity. Experienced lecturers become administrators.

In some subject areas there are clear external frames of reference: while some professional bodies have encouraged more progressive forms of assessment, including the development of work-based portfolios, others are notoriously conservative in determining not only curriculum content but also its mode of assessment. Subject-specific practice is often regarded as a sine qua non.

Change in assessment is, however, imperative. Teaching quality assessment has had an impact. Reviewers are more and more asking teachers about their assessment strategy. The reviews are also exposing an increasing number of staff to diverse practice across disciplines and within their own subject areas.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England and now the Quality Assurance Agency subject overview reports record innovations in assessment as judged by the subject peers and set agendas for future change.

The standards agenda and the proliferation of league tables challenge staff to assure the validity of their assessment tools. Student charters and the signs of an increasingly litigious student body require rigour and reasonableness. Staff and students need change if they are not to be ground down by the burden of assessment.

There is innovation. Despite all that has been said earlier, the pattern of assessment experienced by today's undergraduate and postgraduate suggests that much incremental change is taking place. Coursework is a component in the assessment diet in the majority of subjects; project work has been gradually introduced into the sciences and applied subject areas; presentations have become a phenomenon in the assessment of some subject knowledge.

The challenge of assessing group work continues to be addressed, in some cases with considerable success and effectiveness in identifying skills as well as knowledge.

We need to tackle these barriers to innovation if we are to avoid assessment driving learning and becoming an end in itself. Robust and effective assessment enables students to monitor their progress and motivates learning. It enables staff to assess their progress in developing students' understanding and, effectively constituted, it aids students' learning.

The assessment methods we use influence substantially what and how students learn. They also determine how staff are able to apportion their time to curriculum development and delivery, and to scholarship and research.

While we cannot afford to leave assessment as a residual after-thought, we also cannot afford to allow it to be simply an unintended consequence of changes in the structure, funding and organisation of higher education.

The challenge is to recognise that the individual "assessment entrepreneur" cannot work effectively alone, but must be supported by organisational change and a determined institutional strategy.

Angela Glasner, pro-vice-chancellor (academic), University of Portsmouth.

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