Monday, June 30, 2014

An assessment arms race and the case for slow scholarship

"This research questions the impact of assessment on university teaching and learning in circumstances where all student work is graded. Sixty-two students and lecturers were interviewed to explore their experiences of assessment at an institution that had adopted a modular course structure and largely unregulated numbers of internal assessments. Lecturers rewarded student work with grades and controlled study behaviour with assessment. In some situations it was possible to experience hundreds of graded assessments in an academic year. Students were single-minded when it came to grades and would not work without them. These conditions contributed to competition for student attention and a grading arms race between academics and subjects. In this context, the spaces for achieving certain educational objectives, such as fostering self-motivated learners, were marginalised. Both students and lecturers were unsatisfied with this situation, but neither group could envisage radical change. Students were generally happy to accumulate small marks, while being irritated and stressed by frequent grading. Lecturers were aware of better practices but felt trapped by circumstances. The idea of slow scholarship is introduced to encourage a re-think of such assessment practices, support a positive shift in assessment culture and contribute to the theories of assessment."

Tony Harlanda, Angela McLeana, Rob Wassa, Ellen Millera & Kwong Nui Sima. An assessment arms race and its fallout: high-stakes grading and the case for slow scholarship. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 30 Jun 2014 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2014.931927

Student’s experiences:
  • Students were being assessed constantly and because of this they had no time to do any of the work required of them outside core-graded curriculum activities.
  • All students regularly missed teaching sessions in order to cope with assessment loads. They also cooperated in small groups to ensure that both assessment deadlines could be met, and that course materials were shared.
  • Students who had high expectation for their grades felt they were always working at sub-optimal levels and thought they could do better work than that handed in. These students seemed more stressed than those with lower expectations, so the impact of frequent summative assessment may not be equal across the student body.
  • Students were stressed by the lack of coordination of assessment tasks between the courses they were taking (up to four a semester) and even between sections of the same course. For example, they found that several assessments could be due at the same time and that lecturers were unaware of all due dates.
  • Students expressed a preference for having many small internal-graded assessments and felt that large assessments were too high stakes. None wanted to revert to a final examination carrying 100% of the marks.

Lecturer’s experiences:
  • Lecturers did not know how many assessments each student was subject to as there was little communication between lecturers, departments and programmes.
  • They were reluctant to reduce the number of assessments, despite experiencing high marking loads. The reason given was that students would then spend all their efforts on tasks that carried marks in other modules. This situation suggested assessment was being used to control students’ behaviour and resulted in competition between teachers and departments.
  • Lecturers felt that they were under student pressure to give marks for any submitted course work, even when they thought this might not be appropriate.
  • It was recognised that overall grades might not reflect overall performance when small marks were given for tasks.
  • Non-graded forms of assessment (i.e. formative assessment) were not considered.

"However, one lecturer suggested that frequent assessment was perfect preparation for a neoliberal world in which students would continue to be assessed, judged and accountable throughout their lives."

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