To measure or to learn: two assessment discourses

I have argued that perhaps the single most serious barrier to change in higher education is the power of the current assessment discourse. Not only does it underpin the allocation of extrinsic rewards such as degree classifications and essay grades and hence the focus of staff and students’ efforts; at a more fundamental level still it defines the social order of the teaching-learning relationship itself. I have also suggested that the contemporary organisation of educational institutions reflects the almost symbiotic relationship between educational provision and assessment which characterised the development of modern and mass institutional provision (Broadfoot, 1996). The notion of degree classifications; the organisation and content of courses; the regular diet of marking and examinations - these are all manifestations of the prevailing assessment discourse which defines both the nature of educational goals and the way to reach them.

Moreover, the constraints of this objective structure are strongly reinforced by the subjective perceptions and hence, orientations, of the students themselves. The consistent findings from studies of students’ learning orientations in higher education is that students, particularly the most successful, ‘trade for grades’, tailoring their efforts to the perceived rewards of the assessment system which operates more or less arbitrarily, but certainly externally, to determine their fate (Miller & Parlett, 1974). Crooks (1988) describes students ‘who are very adept and energetic in figuring out optimum strategies for obtaining high marks economically’ as ‘cue-seekers’ whilst other, typically less successful students, are ‘cue-conscious’ and ‘cue-deaf’ (p. 445).

It is therefore not surprising that, as Brown & Knight (1994) argue:

assessment defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time, and how they come to see themselves as students and then as graduates.

It follows then, that it is not the curriculum that shapes assessment, but assessment which shapes the curriculum and embodies the purposes of higher education.

(Brown & Knight, 1994, p. 12)

Hinett (1995) in a study of student attitudes in higher education institutions in both the UK and the USA reports that:

assessment emerged as the overriding factor affecting learning. When asked about their general perceptions of assessment, students articulated their concerns about autonomy and control.

(Hinett, 1995, p. 213)

For the students she interviewed, assessment was ‘just a way of categorising us’; some students “spoke of self-assessed assignments and claimed that ‘no one takes them seriously. It’s just a hassle’ ”. Hinett reports a preoccupation with grades which:

prevents the students from really engaging in the work and being able to reach the higher levels of cognition since they are obsessed with meeting unknown criteria in order to gain a ‘good mark’ which has no tangible or formative use.

(Hinett, 1995, p. 215)

At the other end of the spectrum in primary schools, research evidence reveals that such extrinsic motivation develops very early in a student’s educational career with students orienting their efforts in terms of what ‘counts’:

The attitudes and learning behaviour exhibited by the children as they experienced an increased tightening of the pedagogic frame and as the impact of more categoric and overt assessment became more strongly evident at the end of KS2. They are ‘performance-orientated’ rather than ‘learning-orientated’.

(Dweck, 1975; Dweck & Leggett, 1988)

The children in the study were very aware of the importance of ‘good marks’, ‘getting things right’. In a climate of explicit and categoric assessment however, many of them avoided challenge and had a low tolerance of ambiguity.

(Triggs et al., 1997)

Worrying as this highly instrumental orientation would appear to be in the light of attempts to encourage people of all ages to engage in life-long learning for its own sake, it masks what should be an even more fundamental concern in this respect. A variety of empirical studies have documented the powerful affective impact of assessment and how profoundly it influences learners’ confidence and self-esteem. James (1997), for example, reports the experiences of one of the mature students in his study, Doreen, who had received an unexpectedly good mark and won a prize for her work:

DOREEN: Yes, definitely, because it was confidence, to me it was all about confidence, it was about thinking ‘somebody’s telling me I can do well’. But at the same time, interestingly enough, when I was told I had been nominated for this award, I said ‘what me? Are you sure you’ve not got the wrong essay?’ and I was decrying myself. And then I said ‘what did I do?’ because as far as I was concerned I did exactly the same formula as everything else. So how is that reflected in my ... is it me, or is it just ’cos it happened to be at the right time with the right person reading it. So I was interested... (but) still the feedback wasn’t there.

INTERVIEWER: Right but the mark was there.

DOREEN: The mark was there, but still, you know, they said it was about your style. The style it wasn’t about content as such, it was about style. And then I still, I read it, yes, but I thought well I don’t understand, I still don’t understand.

Doreen is here illustrating two common features of the contemporary use of assessment in higher education. Firstly, she describes the impact of assessment information - in this case positive - on her feelings. The good mark had boosted her confidence. Students’ confidence and self-esteem and hence often their motivation, appear to be significantly affected by the receipt of marks and grades, especially bad ones. It would appear that the assessment dialogue between tutor and student about a particular piece of work, whilst ostensibly confined to the merits of the product in question, in practice impinges to a greater or lesser extent on the student’s more general sense of self. “It always feels so bloody personal” says another of James’s students. However the extract also illustrates another common feature of current assessment practice in that students often do not understand the feedback they have been given. Where students lack such understanding, and hence the knowledge about how to go about trying to improve their work, they are often prevented from making the progress both they and their tutors would wish (Sadler, 1997a).

Such evidence offers a picture which contrasts sharply with the insights provided from a growing body of research about how assessment can best be used to support learning. Both Crooks (1988) and more recently Black & Wiliam (1998) in their research reviews of this topic highlight the clear evidence in favour of, for example, an emphasis on intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, rewards as a basis for motivation. They highlight the importance of building up students’ confidence through the experience of success, however small the steps involved and of providing the detailed substantive feedback and guidance which learners need if they are to overcome their weaknesses and reach the agreed target. They cite the extensive evidence which argues the need to encourage students’ meta-cognitive skills so that they can monitor their personal ‘roadblocks’ in learning and know what to do about them. They emphasise the need for collaboration, rather than competition, to support learning and the importance of giving students a sense of ownership of and control over, their activities.

The central importance of this issue is well-illustrated by Black &C Wiliam’s (1998) review of over 500 empirical studies of the relationship between assessment and learning in a whole variety of educational settings. They demonstrate that the effective use of assessment as a formative device has the power to raise student achievement very considerably. As in the primary and higher education contexts referred to above, their evidence suggests that:

where the classroom culture focuses on rewards, gold-stars, grades or place-in the class ranking, then pupils look for the ways to obtain the best marks rather than at the needs of their learning which these marks ought to reflect. One reported consequence is that where there is any choice, pupils avoid difficult tasks. They also spend time and energy looking for clues to the ‘right answer’. Many are reluctant to ask questions out of fear of failure. Pupils who encounter difficulties and poor results are led to believe that they lack ability, and this belief leads them to attribute their difficulties to a defect in themselves about which they cannot do a great deal. So they ‘retire hurt’ and avoid investing effort in learning which could only lead to disappointment and they try to build up their self-esteem in other ways. Whilst the high-achievers can do well in such a culture, the overall result is to enhance the frequency and the extent of under-achievement.

(Black & Wiliam, 1998, p. 7)

Clearly, students in higher education have typically learned to ‘play’ this system successfully and are not among the very substantial, and currently growing, numbers of students who, in an increasingly explicit climate of categoric assessment, define themselves as failures much earlier in their educational career and thus constitute a greater challenge to the realisation of the ‘life-long learning’ agenda (Mortimore & Whitty, 1997). However, it is the argument of this article that the implications of the tightening bonds of ‘categoric’ assessment in higher education are, in their own way, just as significant. As the domination of a categoric assessment discourse in higher education has steadily strengthened in recent years with its expansion out of the specific domain of evaluating and categorising individual student’s work into all areas of institutional activity, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals, course-teams, examiners and institutional managers to promote, or even to envisage, any alternative. The salience of this argument may be illustrated by a brief reference to two specific examples, one largely at the level of policy and one at the level of institutional practice.

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