New learning, new assessments

by Paul Maharg on 22/06/2006

It was a student, come to see me because she couldn’t believe she’d failed four exams.  Never failed one in her life, then the humiliation of four in a row in the Diploma.  After the shock, the blame: it was the Diploma, it was the fire alarm going off in one of the exams, it was not enough time for cramming, etc.  And then: ‘it was that great idea of Ardcalloch [Paul raises eyebrows] No seriously it’s a genius of an idea, but the trouble with it is that we were all used to doing coursework and transactions, and couldn’t do exams again.’ 

Actually I took that sceptically, then as a compliment, though I didn’t say so.  But she had a point, and the more I thought about it the more I became aware it’s something we need to address in a creative way.  When a curriculum goes fairly experimental, students learn adaptive behaviour to cope and thrive.  Stenhouse noted this back in the seventies within the experimental Humanities Curriculum Project.  But if the curriculum also includes traditional elements of tutorials > open-book exams then experimental elements may attract attention away from the more traditional elements, and distract students from their traditional academic patterns of study > exams. 

Two possibilities for the Diploma: either we winnow out the traditional academic examinations, go for situated learning & assessment in total, or else we get creative about embedding the academic assessment within Ardcalloch.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sefton Bloxham June 22, 2006 at 22:24

Abslolutely! The mode of assessment must be aligned with the learning environment (Biggs, Prosser & Trigwell) and if we create a transactional/collaborative learning environment and expect students to adapt to it (which most do and with considerable enthusiasm), we should not be falling back on traditional modes of assessment which test different skills/knowledge/attributes. For years I’ve been frustrated by having an end of year 3hr unseen exam (although I introduced some “seen in advance” questions a few yeras back) which traumatises students and forces them into a strategic approach (invariably involving surface learning) to their studies. I’ve never been convinced that exams test much more than memory and organisation myself. Athough both are useful attributes, neither are the most important things to be assessing. Anyway, this year for the first time the assessment has been entirely through coursework with 25% being based around a “report” oif the negotiations assignment (team based). I’ve yet to crunch the data (only finished marking yesterday!) but it looks as if we have fewer Fails than usual (they are invariably students who crash in the exam) and more Firsts than usual. I wouldn’t want to base my argument solely on the empirical data of the results but it relates to Paul’s student’s comments. I think she has a point!


2 Paul Maharg June 23, 2006 at 09:26

Yes that’s interesting. I’d be keen to see the data on that, Sefton. I think it’s undeniable within a module. But can Biggs et al be generalised to a whole programme of study? I can’t remember if this was part of the literature; but I think it can be generalised, because assessment is such a powerful influence on student patterns of study. But the problems in development of innovative assessment across a programme are pretty daunting. Communication about aims & culture become a lot easier, though, because the alignment is not just within separate modules but saturates the entire programme.
There’s research on the effects of siting traditional & innovative assessment side-by-side, and if memory serves me right I think that the positive effects of the innovative assessment were less as a result. But I can’t remember the reference.


3 Patricia McKellar June 27, 2006 at 12:02

I can quite understand a student having problems getting back into studying for traditional exams when they have spent a year dealing with legal transactions which have involved them in a whole new range of skills. One of my concerns is the rigidity which attaches to either University requirements or the governing bodies which demands that the assessment be by way of exam. With this in mind, and while we create new assessment methods we have to be careful not to over assess. If we increase the assessment load on students with what are aguably more educationally valid methods we must be able to reduce the burden elsewhere. This means educating our masters in the benefits of the new assessment regime as well as our students.


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