Trying to box clever

March 31, 2000

Management jargon and red tape is invading learning. Pat Leon meets a professor fighting the paperwork and aiming to cut the cackle.

Something is troubling the world of academic assessors, the people who can sway the future for generations of students by a tick of a pen or mark of an essay, project or practical demonstration. There is a belief that alien management-speak has invaded their territory and displaced the natural order.

Talk about learning outcomes, threshold standards, generic level descriptors and declared programme objectives has stirred the blood of quality watchdogs. But the jargon is leaving students cold. Worse still, many staff are feeling the chill.

The invasion has left a trail of red tape -and, in an era of ever scarcer resources catering for more and more students, is all the paperwork making the best use of academic time?

Alison Wolf, professor at London's Institute of Education, believes not. The favoured "learning outcomes" model, like Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin, has just "growed". "More time is being spent sitting in rooms arguing about phrases and specifications and less time is spent on seeing whether people understand them," she says.

Wolf should know, she has spent most of her academic life at home and abroad researching how assessment works, sitting on numerous eminent panels and publishing an impressive volume of books and articles.

Now executive director of the International Centre for Research and Assessment, she is worried that too little research has been done in higher education on how best to judge students' performance. "With GCSEs and national vocational qualifications there is a history of studies about judgement, but not in higher education," she says.

She also has doubts about the suitability of using assessment models based on the competences approach popularised for British managers in the 1980s. "The NVQ movement was influential in arguing for a competence-approach to assessment. Government, industry and quangos all put money into the idea. Yet all the research shows it is wrong. It is too top-down, too bureaucratic, too much work and becomes an endless process of rubber stamping rather than learning.

"Higher education has changed rapidly, and no one's got a handle on it yet," she says. Assessment has shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other. Traditionally, the ideal model involved end-of-year exams, subject options, double marking, a cohesive examining group, an inclusive examination board and a scrutiny meeting, where examiners decided their framework.

Now most assessment is done before the student's final year. Degree programmes are modular, and although work is still mostly double marked, there is no scrutiny meeting, the examining group is diverse and the examining board non-inclusive.

This raises the question of how easy the government will find moves to standardise such diversity in an expanding mass education system with myriad entry levels and still guarantee equity and quality for students wherever they study.

"Changes in structure and culture are lessening the opportunities for academics to form, share and transmit common understandings of their subjects' standards. The move towards benchmarking subjects makes politicians feel safe, but it is a chimera of standardisation - which doesn't make the rest of us feel safe."

Establishing common ground is a prerequisite of fair assessment, says Wolf, but lists of learning outcomes and specifications are not the answer. "Look at how people behave. They use their judgement. We cannot reduce that judgement to a list. All the evidence shows that outcome specifications, although they say something to those who drew them up, do not say much to anyone else.

"A few years back Ihad some first-hand experience of the attempt to write completely standardised rules for how magistrates fine people. When someone got a huge fine for dropping a packet of crisps on Aberystwyth promenade there was a furore."

Wolf says the Quality Assurance Agency's attempt to impose subject benchmarking is neither natural nor historical. British universities have a powerful subject culture but "it is a nonsense that you can divide subjects into 24 - or 124 - nice, neat categories when degree courses are flexible, modular and cross-disciplinary".

No one is even clear what benchmarking is; but Wolf is clear that it cannot guarantee a standard of attainment and content. "Something dreamed up by 12 people nationally cannot revitalise a subject; that can only happen in institutions themselves. Take the talk of threshold standards for awarding a degree. Why focus all the attention at the bottom? People don't generally fail degrees. Their focus is on whether it is a 2.1, 2.2 or a third."

Wolf says there is no simple solution. "But we must open debate and make people aware that there are problems. It is only the assessment community in a university that can put it right. We must encourage people to experiment and develop ideas."

All this may be developmental for planners and assessors, but what about the customers - the students? Do they know what is expected of them? In the 1950s, a student who asked this question was told: "If you don't know what you're here for, you shouldn't be here." Now it is the exact opposite, you just give them a huge long list. Surely there is something in between?

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