Upbeat end-of-era quality report masks concerns

August 2, 2002

Flawed student assessment risks undermining confidence in the standard of British degrees, the quality watchdog has warned at the end of the largest ever review of university teaching.

Publishing the final batch of findings from its decade-long teaching quality assessment exercise, the Quality Assurance Agency warned of over-generous marking, "inconsistencies" that were undermining the objectivity of assessments and "poor" and "inappropriate" procedures. It said institutions had failed to set examinations appropriate to the level of study and had not provided proper feedback to allow students to learn from their results.

QAA chief executive Peter Williams warned that universities needed to pay more attention to how they assessed students. "Assessment is where institutions can demonstrate that academic standards are actively being assured. If the assessment system is not operating effectively, you can't be sure your standards are being maintained."

Mr Williams was speaking after releasing reports on the quality of teaching in 11 subject areas, based on more than 600 assessments carried out in 2000-01. The reports mark the end of the universal inspection of teaching, now known as subject review, which began in 1993.

Institutions used a range of assessment methods, including essays, examinations and dissertations, as well as oral presentations, in-class tests and group work, but often did not administer them well, the QAA concluded.

For example, in hospitality, leisure, sport and tourism: "Weaknesses were frequently evident in the relationship between learning outcomes, assessment criteria, marking and the written feedback provided for students."

In economics, "assessment practices are judged to be appropriate for only just over half of the universities." In more than 40 per cent of institutions assessment of economics was either not matched to the department's intended learning outcomes or was not appropriate for the level of study.

Assessment procedures were the weakest area of teaching in politics as well. The politics report praised the teaching and assessment practices of 60 per cent of providers and their development of key critical and analytical skills, but "26 per cent of providers fail to do this effectively and the development of such skills is not sufficiently supported by assessment strategies".

In archaeology, the QAA said that 10 per cent of institutions did not properly differentiate "between expectations at different levels" and in 13 per cent of institutions, "there are also comments about over-generous marking".

In education, the QAA warned that "rigour in marking and moderation is variable". It found flaws in 49 per cent of departments.

In philosophy, which performed remarkably well, the QAA took one institution to task "for allowing too much similarity between essay topics and examination questions". In librarianship, the QAA said that there was no anonymous marking in some institutions, and in others there was no double-marking.

Mr Williams said the reports showed that teaching standards in the UK were generally sound but: "It is important institutions know what they are assessing, why they are assessing it and to be sure that the means they are using to assess will actually measure what they intend to be measured."

The 11 areas inspected were: philosophy; education; archaeology; economics; leisure, sport and tourism; theology; Celtic studies; librarianship; politics; classics; and business and management.

* The QAA will push ahead with plans to allow students to make anonymous complaints to its audit teams under the new quality-assurance regime, despite "strong opposition" from universities.

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