Assessing Students' Work: Room for Improvement?

Penny Welch, University of Wolverhampton

School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB

Tel: 01902 322466  Fax: 01902 322739  Email:


[Originally published in Stanyer, J & Stoker, G (eds) (1997) Contemporary Political Studies Vol 2, pp.918-922.]


'Under current and emerging political, economic and social conditions the meaning of higher education and its relationship to wider society is being remade'. (Holmes, 1995, p. 27)

In a piece written for the 1996 PSA Conference, I advocated regular and systematic reflection on issues of teaching and learning as one strategy academics could adopt to increase their professional confidence in the face of threats posed by increased government intervention in all aspects of higher education. In the first half of 1997, alongside collective resistance to cuts, redundancies and inadequate pay, it is the way research is funded rather than the way teaching is organized that is likely to occupy the attention of many colleagues as they ponder the results of the Research Assessment Exercise. With the Teaching Quality Assessment behind them (in Scotland and Wales) and a long way in front of them (not before October 2000 in England and Northern Ireland) there may appear to be little external pressure on political scientists to give extra consideration to teaching, learning and assessment. However, the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, set up by the government in February 1996 under the chairmanship of Sir Ron Dearing, is due to report in Summer 1997. The letter of July 1996 inviting institutions and others to submit evidence states that the Dearing Inquiry is 'the first major national inquiry into Higher Education since the Robbins Committee in the early 1960s and will influence the development of higher education over the next 20 years'. The Committee's most significant recommendations will be on funding students and institutions but it will also comment on the effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment, the shaping of the curriculum, the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that graduates need and the standards of HE qualifications.

The time scale for submissions, which had to be in by mid-November 1996, probably did not allow the majority of academic staff to make an input into their institution's response to the questions asked by Dearing. The time between the Committee's report and any decisions by the next government may also be quite short, so the rest of this academic year seems a good time to collectively clarify what we feel is good about our present practices as teachers, the aims and values that underpin our practice, and what changes we might embrace or resist. There are many aspects of our role as teachers that we could focus on, including, for example, the content of our modules and courses, the teaching methods we use, the learning resources we provide for students, the extent to which information technology features in teaching, learning or assessment, how we offer academic and pastoral support to students, the assessment tasks we set and the grading systems we use, how we collect and respond to student feedback.

Pressure on assessment

For the 1997 PSA Conference, I have chosen to offer a workshop on assessment. I will be asking participants to share ideas on what constitutes good practice by academics in the assessment of students' work and then to consider the drawbacks of implementing the examples they have identified. Assessment is a significant part of our teaching responsibilities, it represents and reinforces much of our professional authority, and there are indications that individuals and bodies inside and outside higher education have concerns about the utility and comparability of our assessment methods and processes. Evidence of this interest can be found in the Higher Education Quality Council's current Graduateness project, in the Report on Assessment Issues in Higher Education prepared by the School of Education at Newcastle University in 1993 for the Department of Employment, in the large scale 'Changing Assessment to Improve Learning' conference at the University of Northumbria in September 1996, in the 1996 series of briefing documents published by the Open Learning Foundation, and in THES articles throughout 1996 on the failings of the external examiner system, grade inflation, the declining relevance of Honours classification and the need for HE qualifications to be brought within the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) framework. When we are bombarded with so much criticism, exhortation and advice it is not surprising that many of us are tempted to take refuge in traditional practices and assumptions or even in academic elitism if we get the opportunity. But as I argued in the Winter 1996 edition of PSA News on the issue of core skills, the only way to resist external imposition is to be clearer and more explicit about what we do and why.

Useful sources to stimulate reflection on assessment

I have found two very different publications that could both be useful in starting off departmental or course team debate on assessment. The first is the report commissioned by the Department of Employment (Atkins et al, 1993) which examines the interface between higher education qualifications and the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) framework and concludes that it might be easier to reconcile the former with General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) than with NVQs which assess work-based performance. Section 5 of the report makes recommendations for action at national, institutional and departmental levels. It also urges individual lecturers to regularly review whether the assessment methods they use match the learning objectives they have set and to formulate and publish assessment criteria. The second (Brown et al, 1994) was written to accompany staff development workshops at Oxford Brookes University. It also emphasizes the need for consistency between the functions and the forms of assessment and the value of assessment criteria. The authors legitimate the diversification of assessment methods partly with reference to the need for students to develop skills that are relevant to their personal and working lives.

Notwithstanding the limitations of my literature search, I had expected to find in the education journals more case-studies of innovation in assessment than I did. In particular, I was hoping for studies of the advantages and disadvantages of reducing the weight given, in modules or whole programmes, to unseen examinations that require students to write three or four essays in three hours under controlled conditions. It is always possible, in my experience, to generate heated discussion in classroom or common room on the topic of exams. Many students argue that exams are unnecessarily stressful, unrelated to real life tasks, and test superficial recall more than deep knowledge. On the other hand, many colleagues argue that end of module exams ensure that students cover the whole syllabus, present only their own work, and are tested on their ability to think under pressure. Lord Robbins, reflecting in 1980 on changes in higher education since his Committee's report in 1963, believed that assessment requirements would change as theproportion of mature students increased. 'They will have arrived at stages in their lives at which, for many of them, the testing of benefits received by examinations of the normal type will often be wholly inappropriate. How many middle-aged professors would survive the ordeal of the examinations they set and organise?' (Robbins, 1980, p.112)

In the end I found three relevant articles that are detailed, well argued and thought provoking. The first one is on replacing exams with other forms of assessment, the second is on group work and the third on self and peer assessment by students. The second and third topics are perhaps even more controversial than exams. Even students and staff who explicitly support collaborative learning and the development of teamwork skills may be resistant to assessed group work because of the difficulties of organizing it and the feeling that collective grades awarded for group effort and achievement are less fair and less precise than individual marks for individual work. Many believe that self and/or peer assessment contain too many dangers and that reflective and independent learning can be encouraged in much safer ways.

Richard Hinton Thomas (Thomas, 1976) describes how German Studies at Warwick in the early 1970s replaced most conventional exams with two end of year essays for each course. One of the essays is based on a seminar paper given by the student and the other is on a topic about which another student in the group has made a presentation. The students are encouraged to work on their essays throughout the year, making revisions in response to feedback from staff and fellow students. The change led to greater commitment and enthusiasm on the part of students and a stronger sense of co-operation within the student group and between staff and students. The author warns, however, that such a system requires a closely knit department with shared values, high levels of staff accessibility, and might be unworkable in a very large department.

Adrian Leftwich's account of innovation in politics at York is also interesting. (Leftwich, 1987.] The experiment with group work took place in a term-long Level 2 option on political theory, previously assessed by an individual essay of 5,000 words on a title chosen from a list prepared by the lecturer. Concerned with the lack of a common basis for in-depth discussion in seminars, the author set instead a collectively researched and written project, for which all the students in the group would receive the same mark. The project would be an exposition of a key topic in political theory in a series of hypothetical pamphlets for a new university in a developing country. The students asked for the pamphlet to be a real one instead and sold to other students on campus. The group engaged in a great deal of debate, understood the theoretical issues as well or better than they would have done if the option had followed its normal format, pooled their skills of analysis, argument and expression, and enjoyed the creative dimensions of the exercise. The main drawback was that, in their enthusiasm for the task, some students did not give enough attention to their work on other courses.

Lorraine Stefani of Queen's University, Belfast, introduced peer and self assessment into two first year biochemistry laboratory classes. (Stefani, 1994) She wanted to see if these methods would help students to monitor their own learning and evaluate their performance effectively and reliably. One class undertook self assessment of a laboratory practical report, the other peer assessment. The students in each group collectively determined the marking schemes. Each report was marked by the tutor as well. If the tutor and student marks varied by up to 10 marks out of 100, the agreed mark would be the average of the two. If the gap was greater, the final mark would be decided after a meeting of tutor and students. The laboratory report would count for 2% of the end of year marks. The author found that in the case of self assessment, students and tutor ranked individual performance in a similar order, although the higher graded students had a slight tendency to under mark themselves. In the case of peer assessment, the students tended to be more stringent then the tutor at the lower end of the mark range and slightly less stringent in the rest of the range. The correlation between marks for this exercise and marks for the end of term examinations was lower than the correlation between the original student and tutor marks. This might be explained by the high motivation for the experiment in self and peer assessment that the students reported afterwards.

Concluding thoughts

If space and energy had permitted, I would have liked to have gone further into issues of negotiation between lecturers and students over assessment tasks and criteria. Such a discussion could have led on to different models of the way academics and students relate to each other within the teaching and learning process and different views about the appropriate balance between teaching and other activities in the lives of academic staff. My view is that all undergraduates deserve to be taught by groups of people who are involved in reflection on teaching and learning, in scholarly research, and in engagement with the wider society through consultancy, professional practice or community activity. In looking for an equivalent authority to challenge the view of Graham Zellick, Vice Chancellor of the University of London,who wrote in the Guardian on 9 July 1996 that 'Teaching may call for skills, effort, ingenuity and even originality but to suggest that this can compare to the originality and creativity of first class research or that it is as important is a fallacy', I found Lord Robbins! His statement echoes an earlier era and ethos, but this does not detract from its validity.

'And who shall say who contributes most to the atmosphere of a university - a scientist or scholar who achieves international fame by his research and publications or the teacher who, keeping himself abreast of the advancement of knowledge in his range of subjects, passes on to his students his critical interest in these subjects and his general sense of dedication?' (Robbins,1980, p.68)


Atkins, M. et al, (1993) Assessment Issues in Higher Education, Department of Employment.
Brown, S. et al (1994) Strategies for Diversifying Assessment in Higher Education, Oxford Centre for Staff Development.
Holmes, L. (1995) 'Skills: a Social Perspective', in A. Assiter et al (eds), Transferable Skills in Higher Education, Kogan Page.
Leftwich, A. (1987) 'Room for Manoeuvre: a report on experiments in alternative teaching and learning methods in politics', Studies in Higher Education, 12/3.
Lord Robbins, Higher Education Revisited, Macmillan, 1980.
Stefani, L. (1994) 'Peer, Self and Tutor Assessment: Relative Reliabilities', Studies in Higher Education, 19/1.
Thomas, R. (1976) 'The Necessity of Examinations- and their Reform', Studies in Higher Education, 1/1.

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