Litigation and Learning: Tensions in improving university lecturers' assessment practice

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Flinders University of South Australia]On: 08 October 2014, At: 05:19Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T3JH, UK

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    Litigation and Learning:Tensions in improvinguniversity lecturers'assessment practiceKathryn Ecclestone & Joanna SwannPublished online: 09 Jun 2010.

    To cite this article: Kathryn Ecclestone & Joanna Swann (1999) Litigationand Learning: Tensions in improving university lecturers' assessment practice,Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 6:3, 377-389, DOI:10.1080/09695949992801

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • Assessment in Education, Vol. 6, No. 3, 1999

    Litigation and Learning: tensions in

    improving university lecturers

    assessment practice

    KATHRYN ECCLESTONE1& JOANNA SWANN

    2

    1Department of Education, University of Newcastle, Joseph Cowen House, St. Thomas

    Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK & 2School of Education, University of

    Sunderland, Hammerton Hall, Gray Road, Sunderland SR2 8JB, UK

    ABSTRACT Current debate about assessment in higher education raises educational and

    political issues. Lecturers who wish to make their assessment more reliable and rigorous, as

    well as more effective in improving students learning, need more than technical help to do

    so. This paper reports ndings from an action research project which focused on assessment

    practice at the University of Sunderland, UK. It highlights tensions between genuine

    educational concerns to improve practice and more instrumental pressures, for example, to

    defend one s assessment practice from challenges by students, colleagues and external bodies.

    It is argued that improvement, rather than mere change, will require the commitment of

    people who possess intimate day-to-day contextual knowledge of assessment, and who

    recognise its educational and political complexities. The ndings highlight two areas for

    further research: ways of inducting and involving students in an `assessment community ,

    and institutional staff development designed to improve assessment practice.

    The Assessment Context

    Public debate about assessment policy in the higher education sector of the UK

    currently focuses on the de nition of levels and degree standards, the issue of

    whether traditional degree classi cations should be retained (Higher Education

    Quality Council, 1996), and the problem of how to make assessment more valid and

    reliable in credit-based systems. In this context, assessment in institutions of higher

    education in the UK is likely to be increasingly in uenced by externally set criteria,

    and profound changes in practice are anticipated. This is in keeping with policy

    directions in the post-compulsory sector in general and the national curriculum for

    children aged 5 16 in state-maintained schools in England and Wales, both of which

    re ect themes of explicit centralised de nitions of outcomes and criteria, together

    with external systems of inspection and evaluation.

    Current debate about assessment in higher education is embroiled in broader

    educational concerns about the power of assessment to in uence learning both

    positively and negatively. At the same time there is a political imperative to create

    377

    ISSN 0969-594X printed/ISSN 1465-329X online/99/030377-13 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd

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  • 378 K. Ecclestone & J. Swann

    coherence and progression between different sectors and institutions. Moves to use

    assessment and accreditation systems in order to ensure greater coherence are also

    evident in European policies for lifelong learning, and are re ected in concerns to

    raise levels of participation in formal learning in further and higher education.

    Throughout western Europe, in the US, New Zealand and Australia, these debates

    are increasingly re ected in political intervention in the forms of assessment used.

    Thus, outcome-based assessment, credit-based and modular systems, and moves to

    align different assessment regimes are becoming more prevalent. At the same time,

    it is widely recognised that formative and diagnostic assessment potentially have a

    powerful role in motivating learners to be more effective in and committed to their

    learning. This is leading to growing tension (again, particularly in the countries

    mentioned) between support for selective norm-referenced assessment and the

    current interest in criterion-referenced assessment which is regarded as more equi-

    table, accessible and motivating. (For detailed analysis of current trends see: Gipps,

    1994; Green, 1995; Wolf, 1995; Broadfoot, 1996; Ecclestone, 1996a.)

    Following the Dearing Review of higher education in the UK (1997), changes to

    the role of the external examiner, de nitions of outcomes in degrees, and greater

    coherence between credit systems are likely, although the implications of these

    changes have not been widely debated (see Brown, 1998). The rst report of the

    National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning (Fryer,

    1997) similarly calls for greater coherence in assessment between further and higher

    education. Whether change is initiated within universities or imposed by govern-

    ment agencies, there are apparent variations in the interpretation of degree

    classi cations across subjects and institutions, and confusion among lecturers and

    students about the purposes of assessment. Indeed, there is a general lack of debate

    in universities in the UK about issues related to teaching, learning and assessment

    (Dunne et al., 1997). It is perhaps unsurprising that few institutions have a coherent

    approach to implementing assessment. This absence of debate about the wider

    context for change, and a lack of coherent procedures within institutions, mean that

    university lecturers rarely receive formal induction into an `assessment community .

    In addition, the literature on teaching, learning and assessment aimed at univer-

    sity lecturers raises issues about policy pressures on student numbers and the

    consequences for assessment practice. The more practically-oriented literature also

    addresses educational aims to make assessment more effective in promoting learning

    and fairer to students. (See, for example: Brown & Knight, 1994; Gibbs, 1994;

    Knight, 1995; Brown et al., 1996.)

    Much of the advice offered concerning the use of better formative feedback to

    improve students learning, or ways of streamlining lecturers marking, tends to be

    technical. Among other things it urges that more consistent use should be made of

    explicit learning outcomes and assessment criteria, combined with a greater empha-

    sis on formative feedback, self- and peer-assessment, and standardised marking

    schemes. Authors who produce this practical advice clearly aim to make assessment

    fairer, more transparent and rigorous. It is also apparent that their advice has been

    informed by educational beliefs and research ndings about the potential power of

    diagnostic and formative feedback in the learning process. In addition, there is a

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  • Litigation and Learning 379

    pragmatic recognition that lecturers are under great pressure to provide high-quality

    marking and feedback despite an increase in the numbers of students to assess.

    These beliefs, coupled with a recognition of resource pressures, are reinforced by the

    extension to higher education through the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) of

    political initiatives to base learning on explicit descriptions of levels, learning

    outcomes and assessment criteria (Dearing, 1997; Higher Education Quality Coun-

    cil, 1997). As Brown (1998) shows, a system which the Higher Education Quality

    Council saw as a means of helping universities to regulate themselves may become

    a means for external regulation by the QAA.

    The complexity of assessment policy and its wider context are rarely discussed by

    university lecturers. When they do consider assessment issues, it is usually in the

    context of formal structures such as assessment boards and semi-formal discussion

    with colleagues. This re ects a tendency, prevalent in universities, to adopt ad hoc

    approaches to assessment issues and practices at programme or individual lecturer

    level. As an illustration, recent external examiner feedback on programmes with

    which the authors are familiar raised issues which it was felt staff needed to address.

    These issues re ect broader concerns generated by research:

    What types of formative and summative feedback should students be given? Is there a coherent and consistently applied policy (within modules and across

    modules and programmes) with regard to: assessment criteria, marking schedules,

    moderation procedures, speci c and general feedback given to students?

    What is the role of second marking during a programme of continuous summativeassessments and in nal summative assessment, and what form should it take?

    In addition, the following issues have been raised by individual lecturers at the

    university but outside the project:

    What role do stated assessment criteria and descriptions of levels play in markingand in feedback to students?

    How can we design and use assessment criteria to encourage better student work? How can we encourage students to read written (formative) feedback and use it

    to improve their subsequent work?

    How can lecturers make more productive use of time spent on assessment?

    Although these questions were generated in the context of discussions at the

    University of Sunderland, it appears that few, if any, universities in the UK have

    resolved the issues raised. It is also evident from Placier (1993) that some of the

    tensions which emerged from the project have parallels in the US, and are likely to

    be mirrored in other national university systems which are attempting to widen

    access and raise levels of achievement through more exible types of formal

    certi cation and better formative feedback.

    The Project Context

    This paper explores assessment issues arising from an action research project at the

    University of Sunderland. The project involved 11 lecturers from four different

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  • 380 K. Ecclestone & J. Swann

    Number of

    Number of students taking Whether

    lecturers involved module where assessment Level module leader

    in school teams* practice was modified of module included in team

    School A 4 78 Level 2 School B 2 180 Level 1

    School C 2 5 Masters School D 2 103 Level 2

    *The paper s second author was a member of one of the teams. The paper s first author is not

    included in the figures under this heading.

    FIG. 1. The scale of the project.

    subject areas (schools) (A, B, C and D). It was initiated by the authors of this paper,

    and was funded, between January and July 1997, from central staff development

    resources allocated for research across the university into teaching, learning and

    assessment.

    At the outset of the project, related research was underway in the university s

    School of Education: assessment issues in the vocational curriculum (Ecclestone,

    1996a); how lecturers and students learn degree standards (Ecclestone, 1996b); and

    students and lecturers attitudes towards and uses of assessment feedback in higher

    education (Ding, work in progress). Other assessment initiatives at the university

    include a Teaching and Learning Fellowship on self-assessment and student motiv-

    ation, and the work of the Quality Support Unit Levels Group, established to de ne

    criteria for levels of learning across different degree programmes. The research

    discussed in this paper was designed to complement the existing initiatives and

    provide an opportunity for more lecturers at the university to develop their under-

    standing and skills with regard to assessment.

    The authors recruited participants to the project from the university s Certi cate

    in Education programme (a part-time teacher education quali cation for new

    lecturers at the university); six of the project lecturers were either current or recent

    students on this programme. In total, eight of the project lecturers were new to

    teaching in higher education [1].

    The lecturers grouped into four teams, one in each subject area (school); the

    teams each chose to focus on one module from their respective schools (see Figure

    1). The teams worked independently to plan and implement change in assessment

    practice within their schools, and met as a group on three occasions to: formulate

    each team s research problems; evaluate interim ndings; and highlight implications

    for both the adopted action research methodology and the improvement of assess-

    ment practice in higher education. (See Swann & Ecclestone, 1999, for a detailed

    account of the project s methodology.)

    The project s over-arching problem was: How can we improve lecturers assess-

    ment practice to (a) ensure maximum consistency in the grading of student assign-

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  • Litigation and Learning 381

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