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Assessment for learning

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By Margaret Adolphus

What is wrong with assessment?

When I was at university, some 30 years ago, summative assessment – on which one received one's ultimate degree grading – was by examination. Some 25 years later, when I was myself teaching a university class, I failed to appreciate (and no one bothered to explain) that assessment had changed, and that students' coursework counted for a percentage of the overall mark.

The discovery that I had not assembled the marks for the latter (nor indeed created all of them in the first place) in preparation for the students' end of semester grading was unfortunately made on the day I'd had to absent myself due to a serious family crisis.

Few experiences of assessing students' work are quite that stressful, but most would agree that marking is not the reason they came into teaching. If students got something out of it, then it would all be worthwhile. However, there is serious concern in some quarters as to whether assessment really does develop students' learning. Moreover, a survey of student satisfaction conducted in 2006 by the UK's National Union of Students showed that, while generally students were positive about their experiences, 49 per cent were dissatisfied with assessment and feedback (Shepherd, 2006).

There is general agreement that assessment should be linked with the learning outcomes of the relevant course unit. This process is described in "Learning outcomes and assessment criteria". However, there is also a concern that there is too great a reliance on measurability.

Assessment is a powerful driver of learning, with many students using it as a lens to view their current course. However, it may be that concern for grades could be to the detriment of learning in a wider sense.

In their review of assessment in universities, Elton and Johnson (2002: p. 7) comment on how the former is often held back by traditionalist practices which have not been properly reviewed and reflected on. They contrast this with the more radical views of teaching and learning which shift the onus from the teacher transmitting towards the learner constructing knowledge:

"In demonstrating the overwhelmingly positivist basis of current approaches to assessment, which is in striking contrast not only to philosophical developments of the past half century, but even to current approaches to teaching and learning, we call into question the philosophical basis of virtually all current approaches to assessment" (Elton and Johnson, 2002: p. 94).

It is entirely right that assessment should be related to the course learning objectives: if these are carefully worded to encapsulate that which matters the most, then that which matters the most will be assessed.

However, assessment becomes distorted if it is conceived purely in terms of that which can be measured. According to Elton and Johnson (2002: p. 10), there are certain qualities – "quality of mind", "independent critical thinking", "breadth" – which distinguish a successful graduate.

Similar views are expressed by Price et al. (2008):

"There are important benefits of higher education which are not amenable either to the precise specification of standards or to objective assessment."

Assessment should derive from the practices of academic and professional communities, and the nature of the tasks within which learners engage, as well as just learning objectives and marking criteria.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, all academic units are required to assess student achievement in their undergraduate and graduate programmes. In its assessment, the Department of History brought back recent graduates in order to discover the effects of their training on their current careers. The results of this process were fed back into one of their introductory programmes: "Introduction to historical scholarship".

In other words, assessment has a broader purpose than merely to pass judgement on a student's performance: it should communicate the standard expected so that this can be internalized. Then learning can become not just a race to the finishing post, but a personal commitment to those values of judgement, critical analysis and independence of thought which should characterize academic life.