Friday, July 17, 2015

So remind me again, what is the purpose of a university education?

Defensive position There's an interesting new paper in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education by Royce Sadler touching on ideas of authentic assessment, from which I have cheekily abstracted and editorialised what I consider to be the most important bits. Food for thought.

Three in-course assessment reforms to improve higher education learning outcomes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 17 Jul 2015 doi: 10.1080/02602938.2015.1064858

Reform 1: Assessment task design and specifications - ffs, let's bin "the essay".
"Creating demanding assessment tasks from scratch is hard work if the tasks are to tap into higher order operations on ideas and information. ... Potential sources also include real-life problems in the relevant field."

Reform 2: Grading at the ‘Pass’ level - "markers constantly need to make sound judgments about the quality of work in order to infer underlying competence or capability. Not always easy with real-life problems."

Reform 3: Redesigning course assessment plans
"Accumulation of marks - The common arguments for accumulation are essentially instrumentalist. The purpose is not so much to help learners attain adequate levels of complex knowledge and skills by the end of a course, as to keep them working and provide multiple opportunities for feedback. ... However, notwithstanding its superficial appeal, accumulation actually diverts attention from the goal of achieving a satisfactory level by course end.
Formative assessment - Given a set of course objectives, formative assessment is commonly viewed narrowly as giving students assessment tasks and then feedback so that they can improve. Despite all the effort typically invested in creating better and better feedback, it too often makes practically no difference ... the principal reason is that feedback is basically about telling students – the transmission model of teaching transposed into an assessment setting. The alternative is to offer students formative assessment opportunities that provide authentic evaluative experience of the type they need in order to become better able to recognise, monitor and control the quality of works they themselves are to produce."

Re-inventing end-of-course summative assessment - exam essays? Forget it.

Implications for students
Goal setting - are we locking them into league table mentality even before they graduate?
"Student sense of agency - students need to see and appreciate the purpose to be served, experience success in moving towards its attainment, and be motivated, with grit and determination, to follow through to completion." And not play point scoring games.

Inhibitors of change - well, we all know what they are.
"In recent decades, the focus for evaluating teaching quality has been heavily weighted towards inputs (student entry levels, participation rates, facilities, resources and support services) and a select group of outcomes (degree completions, employability, starting salaries and student satisfaction, experience or engagement). Conspicuously absent is anything to do with actual academic achievement in courses. This has allowed a number of sub-optimal assessment practices to become normalised into assessment cultures. One of the consequences is that too many students have been able to graduate without the capabilities expected of graduates, yet this is not necessarily apparent from their transcripts.
The focus in this article is on student outcomes rather than inputs, with particular emphasis on the higher order capabilities of students. Many students fail to master these, yet they gain credit in course after course and eventually graduate. Directly addressing the deficient aspects of assessment culture and practice could radically alter this state of affairs, but it would require a transformation in thinking and practice on the part of many academics. The ultimate aim is to ensure that all students accept a significant proportion of the responsibility for achieving adequate levels of higher order outcomes. Bluntly put, no student would be awarded a pass in a course without being able to demonstrate these levels. For some students, this would necessitate a major change in their priorities. For academics, both their assessment practices and the nature of the student–teacher relationship would change.
Undoubtedly, determination to pursue this end would have significant washback effects on teaching, learning, and course and programme objectives, but that is intended. The likelihood of success depends on finding a rational, ethical and affordable way to do it. This may require re-engineering some parts of the transition path, creating other parts from scratch, and reworking priorities, policies and practices to a considerable extent. In particular, it would entail rebalancing institutional resource allocations in order to cater for student cohorts that have become much more diversified. Except for aims geared narrowly to economic and employment considerations, this goal is broadly consistent with older and many recent statements of the real purposes of higher education."

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