Dr. Jessica Leech, lecturer in Philosophy at King’s College, London, offers some ‘rather non-radical thoughts about assessment, which might lead to some rather more radical changes.’

In this short comment, I am not going to propose any radical overhauling of assessment, or of the general structure of the University. I want, instead, to suggest that even if we accept the general shape of our institutions, there might still be significant room for a lot of change in the way we approach assessment. It strikes me that there are two rather obvious facts about what assessment should be like that are too often overlooked. (1) The assessment for a given course or module should make sense. (2) Assessment should be inclusive. In properly addressing these two obvious points, we may find out that our practices of assessment should be very different to how they are presently.

First, assessment should make sense. By this I mean, it should be appropriate to the aims of the course or module. What do we want to achieve? What do we want our students to achieve? And what is the best way to assess whether that has been achieved? For example, sometimes the aim of a module is simply to make sure students learn a body of material. It might be that they just need to know this stuff. For example, there will be a lot of factual information that medical students just need to know before they can be let loose in the health service. Or, there may be some material that students just need to know as a solid background before they can move on to a more advanced module. Requiring students to revise and memorise material in order to be able to produce it in a traditional written exam is a pretty good way to get them to learn it. (I’m not saying it’s the only way.)

Not all modules are like this. For example, in philosophy we greatly value the ability to have a critical discussion in a group. We value skills such as expressing your point of view clearly, being able to understand someone else’s point of view, come up (on the spot) with reasonable objections and criticisms to their point of view, as well as suggestions for responses to those objections, and so on, all in a respectful manner. We try to support our students in developing these skills. But do we assess them? To a certain extent, a written essay will assess a student’s ability to clearly express and develop an argument, but it can’t assess their ability to participate fruitfully in a discussion, for example.

Second, assessment should be inclusive. Once we’ve agreed what the aim of a module is, and so what we want to assess, we also need to recognise that different people may be able to display their relevant abilities in different ways. A student who struggles with written expression – for example, a student with dyslexia or similar – may be excellent in spoken expression of their ideas. A student who is too shy to speak confidently, by contrast, may be an excellent writer. If the mode of expression isn’t relevant to what we want to assess, then perhaps it makes sense to assess students in ways that will allow them to best demonstrate their abilities. If I care only about a clearly expressed argument, surely a student can either write it down for me, or say it out loud. But if I care about writing skills, the assessment had better be written. More generally, it seems to me that flexibility and choice in modes of assessment in these kinds of cases would be better than any attempt to provide a “one size fits all” assessment model, even if that model is non-standard. If the lesson here is that different students will be able to best demonstrate their abilities in different ways, a uniform change to assessment doesn’t address this (even a radical uniform change). A change to choice and flexibility does.

If we take these two points into account, and ignore any logistical issues for how to put any of this into practice, what might assessment look like? First, assessment would differ greatly across modules, programmes, and disciplines. Given the wide variety of aims of different units across universities, we should expect to see a similarly wide variety of assessment models. Second, students would face a genuine choice of different kinds of assessment.

There may well be a place for assessment that is itself designed and determined by the students themselves, as is proposed in the current project. But one wouldn’t expect that kind of assessment to show up across the board. What would the aims of a module be, that was best assessed in a way designed by the students in that module? Perhaps aims that involve students thinking critically about assessment: its history, sociology, psychology, and more. Or more widely, aims that ask students to be creative and to challenge established ways of working and thinking. If we take my first point seriously, though, this kind of student-led assessment probably won’t be appropriate in all cases.

How would such a mode of assessment be inclusive? That will depend on how students are invited to develop their assessment model. For example, is inclusivity a requirement of a valid mode of assessment? If so, does that introduce constraints on the process that are against the aims of the project? If not, shouldn’t we be wary of the outcome being a mode of assessment that is not inclusive?

In summary, even if we start from a fairly orthodox position, if we take into account two obvious facts about assessment – that it should make sense, and be inclusive – we may end up with a very different picture of how assessment should look. It may be interesting to compare this kind of outcome, with the outcome of a much more radical reappraisal of assessment, as is proposed in the project.

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