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Teaching for Quality Learning at University

Teaching for Quality Learning at University
Assessing for learning quality: II. Practice
John Biggs
In this chapter we look at implementing assessment package 2. What assessment
tasks are available, and for what purpose is each best used? How can large classes
be assessed effectively? How can students be quickly provided with feedback
particularly in large classes? When, and how, should self/peer-assessment be
used? How can qualitative assessments be combined across several tasks, or
across units, to yield a single final grade? How can students’ performance be
graded qualitatively when the results have to be reported in percentages? These
are the bread-and-butter questions we address in this chapter.
What are the best formats for summative assessment?
Let us say you chose assessment package 2 (if you didn’t, you might as well skip the rest
of this chapter). You are now faced with assessing a large class. I will put it to you in the
form of a multiple-choice test item:
My question: What format will you use to assess your class of 400 first-year (biology)
1. An individual research project (maximum 5000 words).
2. A multiple-choice test.
3. A 2000 word assignment during the term, and a final three-hour examination.
4. A contextualized problem-based portfolio.
Your reply. Not 1, it takes too long to mark; same for 3. In 4 is Biggs trying to be funny,
or is he serious but hopelessly unrealistic? Should be 2, which is what most people use,
but it’s clear what the prejudices of He Who Set the Question are. But Ill risk it and
say 2.
Well, you could be right, but the question is unanswerable as it stands. A crucial
consideration has been omitted: what are your objectives? The ‘best’ assessment method
is the one that best realizes your objectives. In your first year class, are you targeting
declarative knowledge, or functioning knowledge, or both? What levels of understanding
do you require, and or what topics: knowledge of terminology, description, application to
new problems ? As you rightly said in response to our multiple choice question,
multiple-choice is widely uses, and yes, it is convenient. But will it assess what you are
We need to clarify further. Although you chose package 2, some issues are not entirely
clear-cut. Let me again think aloud on your behalf:
NRA or CRA? CRA. I want the grades to reflect learning, not relatives between
students. (However, there’s no room in second year for all of them, we may have
to cull somehow..)
Quantitative or qualitative? Qualitative, I hope, but aren’t there certain basic facts
and skills I want students to get correct?
Holistic or analytic? Holistic, but how do I combine holistic assessments of
several tasks to make one final grade?
Convergent or divergent? Do I want students to get it right, or to show some
lateral thinking? Probably both.
Contextualized or decontextualized? Both. Students must understand the
literature, but they need to solve problems in context.
Teacher assessed or self/peer assessed? I intend to be the final arbiter, but
self/peer assessment has educational and workload advantages.
Backwash? What effect will my assessment tasks have on students’ learning?
Time-constrained? Invigilated? Does my institution require me to impose formal
examinations conditions?
There are no right answers, only better or worse ones, and the range of assessment
formats to choose from is large. We have to strike a balance between practicality and
validity. Chapter 8 set a stern example to live up to, but we have to be realistic. There are
400 students to assess, and their results have to be sent to the board of examiners the
week following the examination.
Throughout this chapter, we will be reviewing many different modes of assessment. You
should read reflectively as before, with a particular problem class in mind. Ask yourself:
how might this help in developing my own assessment practices? At the end of the
chapter, we return to the problem posed by the first-year class.
How important is the format of assessment?
First, let us see if it is matters, apart from convenience, whether you use multiple-choice,
or essay exam, or assignment. This depends on the activities an assessment format
usually elicits. Are they ones the match your teaching objectives? If they do match your
objectives, the backwash is positive, but if they do not, the backwash will encourage
students to use surface approaches to learning.
The evidence is very clear that different formats do produce typical forms of backwash.
They get students doing different things in preparing for them, some being much more
aligned to the unit objectives than others. Tang (1991) used questionnaire and interview
to determine how physiotherapy students typically prepared for short essay examinations
and for assignments (see Box 9.1)
Box 9.1: Learning activities reported by students in preparing for (a) short essay
question examination, and (b) assignment
(a) Short essay examination
rote learning, question spotting, going through past papers, underlining, organizing study
time and materials, memorizing in meaningful context, relating information, visualizing
patients’ conditions, discussing with other students.
(b) Assignment
choosing easy questions/interesting questions/what lecturers expect, copying sources,
reading widely/searching for information sources, relating question to own knowledge,
relating to patients’ conditions and clinical application, organizing, revising text to improve
relevance, discussing with other students.
Source: from Tang 1991.
In essence, exams tended to elicit memorization-related activities, assignments
application-related activities. The assignment required deep learning from the students
with respect to one topic, the exam required deep learning from the students with respect
to one topic, the exam required acquaintance with a range of topics. The teachers
concerned realized that the assignment better addressed the desired course objectives, but
only with respect to one topic. They accordingly adopted a policy to use both: short
answer exams to ensure coverage, the assignment to ensure depth. A not unusual
Scouller (1996, 1998) found that students were likely to employ surface strategies in the
multiple-choice (MC) format; they saw MC tests as requiring low cognitive level
processes. Indeed, Scouller found that using deep approaches was negatively related to
MC test performance. The opposite occurred with essays. Students saw essays as
requiring higher level processes, and were more likely to use them, and those who didn’t,
using surface approaches instead, did poorly. Students who preferred MC to essay
assignment gave surface-type reasons: you can rely on memory, you can ‘play the game’
(see Box 9.2). Yet these were the same reasons why other students disliked the MC; these
students were angry at being assessed in a way that they felt did not do justice to their
learning. When doing assignments, they felt they were able to show higher levels of
learning. Short answer examinations did not attract their anger, but the level of cognitive
activities assessed was no better than with MC.
Box 9.2: Two examples of students’ views on multiple choice tests
I preferred MCQ . . . It was just a matter of learning facts… and no real analysis or critique was required
which I find tedious if I am not wrapped in the topic. I also dislike structuring and writing and would prefer
to have the answer to a question there in front of me somewhere.
….A multiple choice exam tends to examine too briefly a topic, or provide overly complex situations which
leave a student confused and faced with ‘eenie, meenie, minie, mo’ situation. It is cheap, and in my opinion
ineffectual in assessing a student’s academic abilities in the related subject area.
Source: from Scouller 1997.
Assessment by portfolio leads students to see it as ‘a powerful learning tool….’, and as
requiring them to be divergent: ‘it led me to think many questions that I never think of’
(see p. 136). Wong (1994) used SOLO to structure a secondary 5 (Year 10) mathematics
test in the ordered outcome format (see below), and compared students’ problem-solving
methods on that with those they used on the traditional format. The difference was not on
items correct, but on how they went about the problems. They behaved like ‘experts’ on
the SOLO test, solving items from first principles, while on the traditional test they
behaved like ‘novices’, applying the standard algorithms.
In sum then, MCs and short answers tend to elicit low-level verbs, leaving students
feeling that MCs and short answers do not reveal what they have learned, while portfolios
and SOLO encourage high-level verbs. Unfortunately, there appears to be little further
research on backwash from other assessment modes. Tang’s study suggests how one
might go about this, matching verbs denoted as desirable in the objectives with the verbs
students say the assessment tasks encouraged them to use.
We now review particular assessment formats in detail, under four headings: extended
prose, objective, performance and rapid assessments, which are particularly suitable for
large classes.
Extended prose (essay type) formats of assessment
The essay, as a continuous piece of prose written in response to a question or problem, is
commonly intended for assessing higher cognitive levels. There are many variants:
The timed examination, students having no prior knowledge of the question;
The open-book examination, students usually having some prior know- and being
allowed to bring reference material into the exam room;
The take-home, where students are given notice of the questions and several days to
prepare their answers in their own time;
The assignment, which is an extended version of the take-home, and comprises the
most common of all methods of evaluating by essay;
The dissertation, which is an extended report of independent research.
Let us discuss these.
Essay examinations
Essay exams are best suited for assessing declarative knowledge. They are usually
decontextualized, students writing under time pressure to demonstrate level of their
understanding of core content. The format is open-ended, so theoretically students can
express their own constructions and views, supporting them with evidence and original
arguments. The reality is often different.
The time constraint for writing exams may have several reasons:
1. Convenience. A time and a place is nominated for the final assessment, It teachers,
students and administration can work around. We all know where we stand.
2. Invigilation. Having a specified time and place makes it more easy for the time-
keeper to prevent cheating. This enables the institution to guarantee authenticity of
the results.
3. Conditions are standardized. No one has an ‘unfair advantage’. But do you allow
question choice in a formal examination? If you do, you violate the standardization
condition, because all candidates are not then sitting the ‘same’ examination
(Brown and Knight 1994). Standardization is in fact a hangover from the
measurement model; it is irrelevant in a criterion-referenced situation.
4. Models real lift The time constraint reflects ‘the need in life to work swiftly, under
pressure and well’ (Brown and Knight 1994: 69). This is unconvincing. In real-life
situations where functioning knowledge is time-stressed the operating theatre,
the bar (in the courts, that is) or classroom this point is better accommodated by
performance assessment, rather than by pressurizing the assessment of declarative
knowledge in the exam room. Alignment suggests that time constraints be applied
only when the target performance is itself time-constrained.
Time constraint creates its own backwash. Positively, it creates a target for students to
work towards. They are forced to review what they have leamed throughout the unit, and
possibly for the first time see it as a whole -tendency greatly enhanced if they think the
exam will require them to demonstrate their holistic view. Students’ views of
examinations suggest that this rarely happens.
The more likely backwash is negative; students memorize specific points to be recalled at
speed (Tang 1991). Students go about memorization differently. Learners who prefer a
deep approach to learning create a structure first, then memorize the key access words
(‘deep-memorizing’) while surface learners simply memorize unconnected facts (Tang
1991). So while timed exams encourage memorizing, this is not necessarily rote
memorizing or surface learning. Whether it is or not depends on students’ typical
approaches to learning, and on what they expect the exam questions to require.
Does the time constraint impede divergent responses? Originality it is a temperamental
horse, unlikely to gallop under the stopwatch. However, if students can guess likely
questions, they can prepare their original at leisure; and with a little massaging of the
exam question, express prepared creation. You as teacher can encourage this high-level
off-track preparation, by making it known you intend asking very open questions (‘What
is the most important topic discussed in the unit this semester? Why?”, or by telling the
students at the beginning of the semester what the exam questions will be. Assessing
divergent responses must be done holistically. The use of a model answer checklist does
not allow for the well argued surprise. Students should be told how the papers are to be
marked; then they can calculate their own risks.
In sum, time constraints in the exam room cannot easily be justified educationally. The
most probable effect is to encourage memorization, with or without higher-level
processing. In fact, time constraints exist for administrative not educational reasons. They
are convenient, and they make cheating more difficult. Whether these gains are worth the
educational costs is a good question.
Open-book examinations remove the premium on memorization of detail, but retain the
time constraint. Theoretically, students should be able to think about higher-level things
than getting the facts down. Practically, they need to be very well organized; otherwise
they waste time tracking down too many sources.
Exams are almost always teacher assessed, but need not be. The questions can be set in
consultation with students, while the assessing and award of grades can be done by the
students themselves, and/or their-peers, as we saw in Chapter 8. The backwash, and range
of activities being assessed, change dramatically with self/peer assessment.
The assignment, the term-paper, the take-home
The assignment or term paper, deals with declarative knowledge, the project (see below)
with ‘hands-on’ research-type activities. The assignment is not distorted by immediate
time limitations, or by the need to rely on memory. In principle, it allows for deeper
learning; the student can consult more sources and, with that deeper knowledge base,
synthesize more effectively. However, plagiarism is easier, which is why some
universities require that a proportion of the assessments in a unit are invigilated. The
take-home with shorter time limits, often overnight, makes plagiarism a little more
Self/peer-assessment can be used to assess assignments. Given the criteria, the students
award a grade (to themselves, to a peer’s paper or both), and justify the grade awarded.
That in itself is a useful learning experience. But whether the self/peer grading(s) stand as
the official result, or part of it, are matters that can be negotiated. In my experience,
students like the self-assessing process, but tend to be coy about its being a significant
part of the result.
Assessing extended prose
Years ago, Starch and Elliot (1912; Starch 1913a,b) originated a devastating series of
investigations into the reliability of assessing essays. Marks for the same essay ranged
from bare pass to nearly full marks. Sixty years later, Diederich (1974) found things just
as bad. Out of the 300 papers he received in one project, 101 received every grade from 1
to 9 on his nine-point marking scale.
Judges were using different criteria. Diederich isolated four families of criteria, with
much disagreement as to their relative importance:
Ideas: originally, relevance, logic.
Skills: the mechanics of writing, spelling punctuation, grammar.
Organization: format, presentation, literature review.
Personal style: flair.
Each contains a family of items, according to subject. ‘Skills’ to Diederich meant writing
skills, but they could be ‘skills’ in mathematics, chemistry or fine arts. Likewise for the
other components: ideas, organization and personal style. It would be very valuable if
staff in a department collectively clarified what they really are looking for under these, or
other, headings.
Back to the holistic/analytic question
When reading an essay, do your rate separately for particular qualities, such as those
mentioned by Diederich, and then combine the ratings in some kind of weighted fashion?
Or do you read and rate the essay as a whole, and give an overall rating?
We dealt with the general argument in Chapter 8. The analytic method of rating the essay
on components, and adding the marks up, is appealing. It leads to better agreement
between markers. But it is slow. Worse, it does not address the essay as a whole. The
unique benefit of the essay is to see if students can construct their response to a question
or issue framework set by the question. They create a ‘discourse structure’, which is the
point of the essay. Analytic marking is ill-attuned to appraise discourse structure.
Assessing discourse structure requires a framework within which that holistic judgement
can be made. SOLO helps you to judge if the required structure is present or not. Listing,
describing and narrating are structural structures. Compare-and-contrast, causal
explanation, interpretation and so on are relational. Inventive students create their own
structures, which when they work can make original contributions; are extended abstract.
The facts and details play their role in these structures in like manner to the characters in
a play. And the play’s the thing. You do not ignore details, but ask of them:
Do they make a coherent structure (not necessarily the one you had in mind)? If yes,
the essay is at least relational.
Is the structure the writer uses appropriate or not? If yes, then the question has been
properly addressed (relational). If no, you will have to decide how far short of
satisfactory it is.
Does the writer’s structure open out new ways of looking at the issue? If yes, the essay
is extended abstract.
If the answer is consistently ‘no’ to all of the above, the essay is multi-structural or less,
and should not be given good marks, because that is not the point of the essay proper. If
you do want students to list points, the short answer, or even the MC, is the appropriate
format. These are easier for the student to complete, and for you to assess.
This distinction recalls that between ‘knowledge-telling’ and ‘reflective writing’ (Bereiter
and Scardamalia 1987). Knowledge-telling is a multi-structural strategy that can all too
easily mislead assessors. Students focus only on the topic content, and tell all they know
about it, often in a listing or point-by-point form. Using an analytic marking scheme, it is
very hard not to award high marks, when in fact the student hasn’t even addressed the
question. Take this example of an ancient history compare-and-contrast question: ‘In
what ways were the reigns of Tutankhamen at Akhnaton alike, and in what ways were
they different?’ The highest scoring student gave the life histories of both pharaohs, and
was commended on her effort and depth of research, yet her discourse structure was
entirely inappropriate (Biggs 1987b).
Reflective writing transforms the writer’s thinking. E. M. Forster put it thus: ‘How can I
know what I think until I see what I say?’ The act of writing externalizes thought, making
it a learning process. By reflecting on what you see, you can revise it in so many ways,
creating something quite new, even to yourself. That is what the best academic writing
should be doing.
The essay is obviously the medium for reflective writing, not knowledge-telling. Tynjala
(1998) suggests that writing tasks should require students;
actively to transform their knowledge, not simply to repeat it;
to undertake open-ended activities that make use of existing knowledge-beliefs, but that
lead to questioning and reflecting on that knowledge;
to theorize about their experiences;
to apply theory to practical situations, and/or to solve practical problems or problems of
Put otherwise, the question should seek to elicit higher relational and extended abstract
verbs. Tynjala gave students such writing tasks, which they discussed in groups. They
were later found to have the same level of edge as a control group, but greatly exceeded
the latter in the use to which they could put their thinking. The difference was in their
functioning in their declarative, knowledge.
Maximizing stable essay assessment
The horrendous results reported by Starch and Elliott and by Diederich occurred because
the criteria were unclear, were applied differently by different assessors and were often
unrecognized. The criteria must be aligned to the objectives from the outset, and be
consciously applied.
Halo effects are a common source of unreliability. Regrettable it may be, but we tend to
judge the performance of students we like more favourably than those we dont like.
Attractive female students receive significantly higher grades than unattractive ones
(Hore 1971). Halo effects also occur order in which essays are assessed. The first half-
dozen scripts tend to set standard for the next half-dozen, which in turn reset the standard
next. A moderately good essay following a run of poor ones tends to be assessed higher
than it deserves, but if it follows a run of very good ones, it is marked down (Hales and
Tokar 1975).
Halo and other distortions can be greatly minimized by discussion; judgements are social
constructions (Moss 1994; see pp. 81, 99 above). There is some really strange thinking on
this. A common belief is that it is more objective’ if judges rate students’ work without
discussing it. In one fine arts department, a panel of judges independently award grades
without discussion; the student’s final grade is the undiscussed average. The rationale for
this bizarre procedure is that works of an artist cannot be judged against outside
standards. Where this leaves any examining process I was unable to discover.
Out of the dozens of universities where I have acted as an external examiner for research
dissertations, only one invites examiners to resolve disagreement by discussion before the
higher degrees committee adjudiates. Consensus is usually the result. Disagreements
between examiners are more commonly resolved quantitatively: for example, by counting
heads, or by hauling in additional examiners until the required majority is obtained. In
another university I could mention, such conflicts are resolved by a vote in senate. The
fact that the great majority of senate members haven’t seen the thesis aids detachment.
Their objectivity remains unclouded by mere knowledge.
Given all the above, the following precautions suggest themselves:
All assessment should be ‘blind’, with the identity of the student concealed.
All rechecking should likewise be blind, with the original mark concealed.
Each question should be marked across students, so that a standard for each question is
set. Marking by the student rather than by the question allows more room for halo
effects, a high or low mark on one question influencing your judgement on the
student’s answers to other questions.
Between questions, the papers should be shuffled to prevent systematic order effects.
Grade coarsely (qualitatively) at first, say into ‘excellent’, ‘pass’ and ‘fail’, or directly
into the grading categories. It is then much easier to discriminate more finely within
these categories.
Departments should discuss standards, to seek agreement on what constitutes excellent
performances, pass performances and so on, with respect to commonly used
assessment tasks.
Spot-check, particularly borderline cases, using an independent assessors. Agree on
criteria first.
The wording of the questions should be checked for ambiguities by a colleague.
Objective formats of assessment
The objective test is a closed or convergent format requiring one correct answer. It is said,
misleadingly, to relieve the marker of ‘subjectivity” in judgement. But judgement is
ubiquitous. In this case, it is simply shifted from scoring items to choosing items, and to
designating which alternatives are correct. Objective testing is not more ‘scientific’, or
less prone to error. The potential for error is pushed to the front end, where the hard work
is designing and constructing a good test. The advantage is that the cost-benifits rapidly
increase the more students you test at a time. With machine scoring, it is as easy to test
one thousand and twenty students as it is to test twenty: a seductive option.
The following forms of the objective test are in common use:
Two alternatives are provided (true—false).
Several, usually four or five, alternatives are provided (the MC).
Items are placed in two lists, and an item from list A has to be matched an item from
list B (matching).
Various, such as filling in blank diagrams, completing sentences. One version, the cloze
test, is used as a test of comprehension.
Sub-items are ‘stepped’ according to difficulty or structure, the student being required
to respond as ‘high’ as possible (the ordered outcome).
Of these, we now consider the MC, and the ordered outcome. The cloze is considered
later, under ‘rapid’ assessment.
Multiple-choice tests
The MC is the most widely used objective test. Theoretically, MCs can assess high-level
verbs. Practically, they rarely do, and some students, the Susans rather than the Roberts,
look back in anger at the MC for not doing so (Scouller 1997). MCs assess declarative
knowledge, usually in terms of the least demanding process, recognition. But probably the
worst feature of MCs is that they encourage the use of game-playing strategies, by both
student and teacher. Some examples:
In a four-alternative MC format, never choose the facetious or the jargon-ridden
By elimination, you can create a binary choice, with the pig-ignorant having a 50 per
cent chance of being correct.
Does one alternative stimulate a faint glow of recognition in an otherwise unrelieved
darkness? Go for it.
Longer alternatives are not a bad bet.
Teacher strategies
Student strategies are discouraged by a guessing penalty: that is, deducting wrong
responses from the total score. (Question: why should this be counter-productive?)
The use of facetious alternatives is patronizing if not offensive (I can play games with
you but you can’t with me). Not nice.
Rewording existing items when you run out of ideas. Anyway, it increases reliability.
MC tests have great coverage, that ‘enemy of understanding’ (Gardner 1993). One
hundred items can cover an enormous number of topics. But if there is exclusive use of
the MC, it greatly misleads as to the nature of knowledge, because the method of scoring
makes the idea contained in any one item the same value as that in any other item. But
consider Lohman’s (1993) instance, where an MC test was given to fifth-grade children
on the two hundredth anniversary of the signing of the US Constitution. The only item on
the test referring to Thomas Jefferson was: ‘Who was the signer of the Constitution who
had six children?’ A year later, Lohman asked a child in this class what she remembered
of Thomas Jefferson. Of course, she remembered that he was the one with six children,
nothing of his role in Constitution. Students, including tertiary students, quickly learn that
‘There is no need to separate main ideas from details; all are worth one point. And there
is no need to assemble these ideas into a coherent summary or to integrate them with
anything else because that is not required’ (Lohman 1993: 19). The message is clear. Get
a nodding acquaintance with as many details as you can, but do not be so foolish as to
attempt to learn anything in depth.
MC tests can be useful if they supplement other forms of assessment, but when used
exclusively, they send all the wrong signals. Unfortunately, they are convenient.
Ordered outcome items
An ordered outcome item looks like an MC, but instead of opting for the one correct
alternative out of the four or so provided, the student is required to attempt all sub-items
(Masters 1987). The sub-items are ordered into a hierarchy of complexity that reflects
successive stages of learning that concept or skill. The students ascend the sequence as far
as they can, thus indicating their level of competence in that topic.
All that is required is that the stem provides sufficient information for a range of
questions of increasing complexity to be asked. How those questions are derived depends
on your working theory of learning. SOLO can be used as a guide for working a sequence
out. A SOLO sequence would look like this:
1. Unistructural: use one obvious piece of information coming directly from the stem.
2. Multistructural: use two or more discrete and separate pieces of information contained
in the stem.
3 Relational: use two or more pieces of information each directly related to an integrated
understanding of the information in the stem.
4. Extended abstract use an abstract general principle or hypothesis which can be derived
from, or suggested by, the information in the stem.
The student’s score is the highest correct level. If the response to the first question is
inadequate, the student’s understanding is assumed to be prestructural.
The levels do not, however, need to correspond to each SOLO level, or to SOLO levels at
all. In a physiotherapy course (C. Tang, private communication), an extended abstract
option was inappropriate for the first year, and so two levels of relational were used, as in
(c) and (d) in Box 9.3, where (c) refers to conceptual integration (declarative) and (d) to
application (functioning). Sub-item (a) is unistructural because it only requires a correct
reading of the diagram: a simple but essential first skill. Sub-item a multistructural
response, requiring the comparison of two different readings. Sub-item (c) requires
interpretation at a simple relational level response, while (d) is relational but more
complex, requiring a complete interpretation integrated with functioning knowledge of
caring skills.
Key situations can be displayed in this format, and a (d) or (c) level of performance
required (in this case, anything less would not be of much help to patients). It is
sometimes possible to use a one-correct-answer format for extended abstract items:
‘Formulate the general case of the preceding (relational) item is an instance.’ Often,
however, extended abstract items use open-ended verbs, so we have in effect a divergent
short-answer sub-item: ‘Give an example where (c) - the preceding item - does not occur.
Why doesn’t it?’
The ordered outcome format sends a strong message to students that higher is better:
recognition and simple algorithms won’t do. This was the format in which Wong (1994)
found students to behave theoretical, like experts do (see p. 168).
Constructing ordered outcome items is the difficult part. The items need to form a
staircase: unistructural items must be easier than multtstructal, and multistructural than
relational, and relational than extended abstract. This can be tested with trial runs,
preferably using the Guttman (1941) scalogram model, or software is available (Masters
1988). Hattie and Purdie (1998) discuss a range of measurement issues involved in the
construction and interpretation of ordered outcome SOLO items. Basically, it is as always
a matter of judgement.
Scoring ordered outcome items makes most sense on a profile basis. That is, you have
nominated key situations or concepts, about which the students need to achieve a minimal
level of understanding. In the physio item, (c) is possibly adequate in first year, but by the
second year students really should be responding at an applied treatment (d) level. The
profile sets minimum standards for each skill or component.
It is tempting to say (a) gets 1 mark, (b) 2 marks, (c) 3 marks, and (d) (let’s be generous)
5 marks. We then throw the marks into the pot with all the other test results. However,
this destroys the very thing we are trying to assess, a level of understanding. If the score is
less than perfect, a nominal understanding of one topic could be averaged with a
performative understanding of another, yielding ‘moderate’ understanding across all
topics, which wasn’t the case at all.
Performance assessment
Performance assessment requires students to perform tasks that mirror the objectives of
the unit. Students should be required to demonstrate that they see and do things
differently as a result of their understanding.
The problems or tasks set are, as in real life, often divergent or ill-formed, in the sense
that there are no single correct answers. For example, there are many acceptable ways a
software program should be written for use in an estate agency office. What is important
is that the student shows how the problem may reasonably be approached, how resources
and data are used, how previously taught material is used, how effectively the solutions
meets likely contingencies and so on. Clearly, this needs an open-ended assessment
format and assessment process. Almost any scenario from the professions can be used:
designing a structure, teaching a new topic, dealing with a patient with a strange
combination of symptoms.
Various formats reflect this authentic intention with varying fidelity.
The practicum
The practicum, if properly designed, should call out all the important verbs needed to
demonstrate competence in a real-life situation, such as practice teaching, interviewing a
patient, any clinical session, handling an experiment in the laboratory, producing an
artistic product. It goes without saying that CRA is the most appropriate way of
evaluation. An assessment checklist should not look like this:
A: Definitely superior, among the best in the year
B: Above average
C: Average
D: Below average, but meets minimal standards
E: Not up to standard.
It shou1d be quite clear that the student has to perform certain behaviours to a specified
standard. It then remains to find if the learner can perform them, and if not, why not.
Video-taping is useful, as then students can rate their own performance against the
checklist of desired behaviours before discussing the supervisor’s rating.
The closer the practicum is to the real thing, the greater its validity. The one feature that
distorts reality is that it is an assessment situation, so that some students are likely to
behave differently from the way they would if they were not being observed and assessed.
This may be minimized by making observation of performance a continuing fact of life.
With plenty of formative assessment before the final summative assessment, the student
might nominate when he or she is ‘ready’ for final assessment. This might seem labour
intensive, but recording devices can stand in for in vivo observation, as can other
In fact, the situation is ideal for peer assessment. Students become accustomed to being
observed by each other, and they can receive peer feedback. Whether student evaluations
are then used, in whole or in part, in the summative assessment is worth considering. In
surgery possibly not; in the expressive arts possibly so.
Presentations and interviews
The class presentation is evaluated in terms of what content is conveyed, and how well.
Where the focus is on declarative understanding, the students declaring to their peers, we
have the traditional seminar, which is not necessarily meant to reproduce a situation in
which students will later find themselves. The seminar, if used carefully, offers good
opportunities for formative discussion, and peer assessment both formative and
summative. However, as we have seen (pp. 86-7 above), it can easily become a poor
substitute for proper teaching.
Student presentations are best for functioning rather than declarative knowledge. Peer
input can be highly appropriate in this case. The Fine Arts Department at the University
of Newcastle (NSW) (not the C mentioned earlier) has an examining panel comprising
teachers, a prominent local artist and a student (rotating), who view all the student
productions, have a plenary discussion with all staff and students about each, and then
submit a final, public, examiners’ report. This is not only a very close approximation to
real life in the gallery world, but actively involves staff and students in a way that it is
rich with learning opportunities.
The poster presentation follows the well known conference format. A student or group of
students display their work according to an arranged art format during a poster session.
This provides excellent opportunities for peer-assessment, and for fast feedback of
results. However, Brown and Knight (1994: 78) warn that the poster’ must be
meticulously prepared’. The specifications need to be very clear, down to the size of the
display, and how to use back-up materials: diagrams, flow-charts, photographs. Text
needs to be clear and highly condensed. Assessment criteria can be placed on an
assessment sheet, which all students receive to rate all other posters. Criteria would
include substance, originality, impact and so on.
The interview is used most commonly in the examination of dissertations and theses. In
the last case, the student constructs a ‘thesis’ that has to be ‘defended’ against expert
criticism. Almost always, these oral defences are evaluated qualitatively. The student
makes a case, and is successful, conditionally successful, unsuccessful but is given
another try (with or without formal re-examination) or irredeemably unsuccessful. Here
again the criteria are usually clear spelt out: the structure of the dissertation, what
constitutes good procedure, what is acceptable and what unacceptable evidence, clarity of
writing, format and so on. These criteria are seen as ‘hurdles’ - they have to be got right
eventually -while the assessment itself. is on the substance and originality of the thesis
In undergraduate teaching, the interview is seen as ‘subjective’ (which it is, but see
above), and it ‘takes too long’. However, a properly constructed interview schedule could
see a fruitful interview through in 20 minutes, possible 30. How long does it take to
assess properly each written product of a three-hour examination, or a 2500 word
assignment? Thirty minutes? Gobbets (see below) could be a useful way of structuring
and focusing an assessment interview. Unstructured interviews can be unreliable, but bear
in mind that the point of interviewing is lost if the interview is too tightly structured.
That point is that the interview is interactive. Teachers have a chance to follow up and
probe, and students have a chance to display their jade: their unanticipated but valuable
learning treasures. Certainly, the interview might be supplemented with a written MC or
short answer (to cover the basics), but the most interesting learning could be brought to
light and assessed within 20 minutes or so. Oral assessments should be tape recorded,
both in case of dispute (when student and an adjudicator can hear replay) and so that you
may assess under less pressure, or subsequently check your original assessment.
Self-assessment is an interesting option here, with the teacher- and self-assessments
themselves being the subject of the interview.
Critical incidents
Students can be asked to report on ‘critical incidents’ that seem to them powerful
examples of unit content, or that stimulate them to think deeply about the content. They
then explain why these incidents are critical, how they arose and what might be done
about it. This gives rich information about how students (a) have interpreted what they
have been taught, and make use of the information.
Such incidents might be a focus in a reflective journal, or be used as portfolio items (see
Whereas an assignment usually focuses on declarative knowledge, the project focuses on
functioning knowledge applied to a hands-on piece of research. Projects can vary from
simple to sophisticated, and often in the latter case will be best carried out by a group of
students. The teacher can allot their respective tasks, or they can work them out among
There are several ways of awarding grades for a group project. The simplest is to give an
overall grade for the project, which each student receives. The difficulty is that it does not
allow for passengers, and some of the harder workers will feel aggrieved. Various forms
of peer-assessment may be used to modify this procedure, most of which rely on
The project is awarded 60 per cent; there are four participants, so there are 240 marks
to be allocated. You find out as best you can who did what, and you grade the sections
The project is awarded 60 per cent; there are four participants, so there are 240 marks
to be allocated. The students decide who is to get how many marks, with criteria and
evidence of effort. One problem is that they may be uncontroversial and divide them
equally – some hating themselves as they do so.
The project is awarded 60 per cent; there are four participants. Each receives a basic
40 per cent. There are now 20 x 4 marks to be allocated. Again, they decide the
allocation. The most blatant passenger gets no more, and ends up with 40 per cent; the
best contributor gets half of the remainder, by agreement, and ends up with 80 per
cent, and so on. This mitigates, slightly, egalitarian pressures.
Some qualitative alternatives:
• Where there is a category system of grading, all receive the same grade.
• The students grade each other, building extent of contribution into the grading system.
• The students grade each other according to contribution, but you decide the categories
to be allocated.
A problem with collaborative projects is that individual students too easily focus only on
their own specific task, not really understanding other components, or how they
contribute to the project as a whole. The idea of a group project is that a complex and
worthwhile task can be made manageable, each student taking a section he or she can
handle. However, the tasks are divided all too readily according to what students are
already good at: Mario will prepare the literature review, Sheila will do the stats. In that
case, little learning may take place. We want students to learn things other than what they
already know, so the allocation might be better be decided so that Sheila does the
literature review, and Mario the stats. This is likely to end up with each helping the other,
and everyone learns a lot more.
Most importantly, we want them to know what the whole project is about, and how each
contribution fits in, so an additional holistic assessment is necessary. For that a concept
map would be suitable, or a short answer. And perhaps that is the answer to the group-
sharing problem. If a student fails the holistic part, that student fails the project. The
backwash is this: make sure you know what your colleagues are doing and why.
Contracts replicate a common everyday situation. A contract would take into account
where an individual is at the beginning of the course, what relevant attainments are
possessed already, what work or other experience, and then, within the context of the
course objectives, he or she is to produce a needs analysis from which a programme is
negotiated: what is to be done and how it is proposed to do it, and within what time-scale.
Individuals, or homogeneous groups of students, would have a tutor to consult
throughout, with whom they would have to agree that the contract is met in due course.
The assessment problem hasn’t gone away, but advantage is that the assessments are tied
down very firmly from the add the students know where they stand (Stephenson and
Laycock 1993).
A more conventional and less complicated contract is little different from clear criterion-
referencing: ‘This is what an A requires. If you can prove to me that you can demonstrate
those qualities in your learning, then an A is what you will get.’ This is basically what is
involved in portfolio assessment (see below).
Reflective journal
In professional programmes, it is useful if students keep a reflective journal, in which
they record any incidents, thoughts or reflections that are relevant to the unit. Journals are
valuable in capturing the students’ judgement as to relevance, and their ability to reflect
upon experience the content taught. Such reflection is basic to proper professional
functioning. The reflective journal, then, is especially useful for assessing content
knowledge, reflection, professional judgement and application.
Assessment can be delicate, as journals are often very personal; and boring, as they are
often very lengthy. It is a good idea to ask students to submit selections, possibly focusing
on critical incidents. Journals should not be ‘marked’, but taken as evidence of quality in
Case study
In some disciplines, a case study is an ideal way of seeing how students can apply their
knowledge and professional skills. It could be written up as a project, or as an item for a
portfolio. Case studies might need to be highly formal and carried out under supervision,
or be carried out independently by the student. Possibilities are endless.
Assessing the case study is essentially holistic, but aspects can be used both for formative
feedback and for summative assessment. For example, there are essential skills in some
cases that must be got right: otherwise the patient dies, the bridge collapses or other
mayhem ensues. The component skills here could be pass—fail; fail one, fail the lot (with
latitude according to the skill and case study in question). Having passed the components,
however, the student then has to handle the case itself appropriately, and that should be
assessed holistically.
There are some excellent software options for clinical decision-making for medical case
studies, which fit the authentic format extremely well. However, this is a rapidly
expanding area and no doubt other disciplines will have their own versions in due course.
Portfolio assessment
In a portfolio, the student presents and explains his or her best ‘learning treasures’ (p.
155) vis-à-vis the objectives. Students have to reflect and use judgement in assessing their
own work, and explain its match with the unit objectives. When students give their
creativity free reign, portfolios are full of complex and divergent surprises, aligned to the
unit aims in ways that are simply not anticipated by the teacher.
In their explanations for their selection of items, students explain how the evidence they
have in their portfolios addresses their own or the official unit aims. One danger with
portfolios is that students may go overboard, creating excessive workload both for
themselves and for the teacher. Limits must be set (see below).
Assessing portfolio items can be deeply interesting. It may be time consuming, but that
depends on the nature and number of items. Many items, such as concept maps, can be
assessed in a minute or so, In any event, a morning spent assessing portfolios feels like 30
minutes at look-alike assignments. Following are some suggestions for implementing
portfolio assessment.
Make it quite clear in the teaching objectives what the evidence for good learning may
be. The objectives should be available to students at the beginning of the semester.
2 State the requirements for the portfolio. These need to be made very clear.
Number of items. In a semester-long unit, four items is about the limit.
Approximate size of each item. The total portfolio should not be longer than a project or
assignment you would normally set. I suggest no more than 1500 words for any one
item, but that depends on the nature of the item. Some items, such as concept maps or
other require less than a page.
A list of sample items; but emphasize that students should show some creativity by
going outside that list, as long as the items are relevant. Items should not be repetitive,
making the same point in different ways.
Any compulsory items? In my courses (in teacher education) I usually prescribe a
journal, leaving the other items to student choice.
Source of items. Items may be specific to a unit, or drawn from other units in the case
of evaluating at the end of a course/programme. In some problem-based courses,
students will be continually providing often on a pass/fail basis, over a year, or two
years. The final evaluation could then comprise - in toto or in part - samples of the best
work tents think they have done to date.
What are the items supposed to be getting at? Are your teaching objectives best
addressed as a package, or as a list of separate items?
3 Decide how the portfolio is to be graded. There are two alternatives:
a) assessing individual items, and then combining;
b) assessing the portfolio as a whole (the ‘package’).
If (a), the situation is the same as combining several assessments within a unit to arrive at
a final grade (see pp. 190-4 below). It is tempting to mark each item separately, and then
total, but that misses the point of the portfolio, which is embedded in (b). Each item
should address some aspect learning, so that the whole addresses the thrust of the unit.
This really get back to your conception of your unit: do you see yourself teaching a
collection of topics, or do those topics constitute a thrust? If the latter, the students
portfolios should address that thrust. In the last case, the student is in effect saying: ‘This
is what I got out of your class. I have learned these things, and as a result my thinking is
changed.’ If their package can show that they have learned well indeed.
You might include other assessment tasks apart from the portfolio: for example, a
conventional assessment to establish ‘coverage’ of basics. You will then need to decide
how to combine the two sets of results.
Portfolios have been used for years in the fine arts, but they can be used to assess almost
any course content. A case study of portfolio assessment is in Chapter 10.
Assessing in large classes
If lecturing is the default for large-class teaching, MCs and timed exams are the default
for large-class assessment. Exams take a lot of time to assess, but with tutor assistance
and the clear time slots in which things have to be done and reported, we can come to
terms with them. Unfortunately, as we have seen, exams are not the best modes of
assessment. We now look at alternatives for large-class assessment that:
a) are rapidly administered, completed and assessed;
b) get at higher order learnings than is usually the case with the two default modes.
First some strategic decisions need to be made.
1. You maybe able to justify postponing time-consuming qualitative assessments in the
first year, such as individual practica or portfolios, to the, it is hoped, sparer second
and third years. At least students will have the experience of these assessments before
they do graduate.
2. Cut down on massive, mind-numbing single-mode assessment such as the final exam.
Assess more often, with more varying assessments (Brown and Knight 1994; Davis
and McLeod 1996b).
Let us then see what further assessment tasks we might use.
Concept maps
Concept maps, introduced as a TLA (see pp. 82-3), can also be used for assessment. They
enable us to tell at a glance if a student has an impoverished knowledge structure relating
to the topic, or a rich one- (see Task 5.1). While they are to be assessed holistically, you
could rate the structure on a 10-point scale, say, just in order to derive a figure for
Venn diagrams
Venn diagrams are a simple form of concept map, where the boundary of a concept is
expressed in a circle or ellipse, and interrelations between concepts are expressed by the
intersection or overlap of the circles. Venn diagrams, like concept maps, are very
economical ways of expressing relationships. They can be used for teaching purposes, in
conveying relationships to learners, and for assessment purposes, so that learners may
convey their ways of seeing relationships between concepts. Getting students to draw and
briefly explain their own Venns, or to interpret those presented, can be done quickly,
where the target of understanding is relationships between ideas. Venns make good
gobbets (see below).
Three-minute essay
We met the three-minute essay in Chapter 6, as a method of introducing reflective activity
into large-class teaching, by asking such questions as:
• What do I most want to find out in the next class?
• What is the main point I learned today?
These questions may provide very useful information for the teacher in two respects:
formatively, in finding out how the content is being interpreted by students; and
summatively, in finding out if students have made appropriate interpretations, which can
be used for grading purposes. Such questions can be answered in minutes in a large class.
Short answer examinations
In short answers, the student answers in note form. This format is useful for getting at
factual material, e.g. addressing or interpreting diagrams, charts and tables, but is limited
in addressing main ideas and themes. The examination is usually after something quite
specific, and operates in practice more like the objective format than the essay (Biggs
1973; Scouller 1996). However, it has advantages over the standard MC, in that it is less
susceptible to test-taking strategies (you can’t work out the answer by elimination), it
requires active recall rather than just recognition and it is easier for you to construct, but
not as easy to score.
Gobbets are significant chunks of content with which the student should be familiar and
to which the student has to respond (Brown and Knight 1994). They could be a paragraph
from a novel or of a standard text, a brief passage of music, a Venn diagram, an
archaeological artifact, a photograph (a building, an engine part) and so on. The students’
task is to identify the gobbet, explain its context, say why it is important, what it reminds
them of, or whatever else you would like them to comment on.
Gobbets should access a bigger picture, unlike short answers, which are it sufficient unto
themselves. That big picture is the target, not the gobbet itself. Brown and Knight point
out that three gobbets can be completed in the time it takes to do one essay exam
question, so that to an extent you can assess both coverage and depth.
Letter to a friend
In the ‘letter to a friend’, the student tells an imaginary or real friend, who is thinking of
enrolling in the unit next year, about his or her own experience of the unit (Trigwell and
Prosser 1990). These letters are about a page in length and are written and assessed in a
few minutes. The students should reflect on the unit and report on it as it affects them.
Letters tend to be either multistructural or relational, occasionally extended abstract.
Multistructural letters are simply lists of unit content, a rehash of the course outline. Good
responses provide integrated accounts of how the topics fit together and form a useful
whole, while the best describe a change in personal perspective as a result of doing the
unit. They also provide a useful source of feedback to the teacher on aspects of the unit.
Like the concept map, letters supplement more fine-grained tasks with an overview of the
unit, and they make good portfolio items
Cloze tests
Cloze tests were originally designed to assess reading comprehension. Every seventh (or
so) word in a passage is eliminated, and the reader has to fill in the space with the correct
word (more flexible versions allow a synonym). A text is chosen that can only be
understood if the topic under discussion is understood, rather like the gobbet. The omitted
words are essential for making sense of the passage.
The simplest way of scoring is to count the number of acceptable words completed. You
could try to assess the quality of thinking underlying each substitution, but this
diminishes its main advantage, speed.
Procedures for rapid assessing
We should now look at some procedures that speed up assessment.
This can fractionate the teacher’s assessment load in large classes, even when you use
conventional assessments such as exam or assignment. Using posters, the assessment is
over in one class session. But of course the criteria have to be absolutely clear, which
makes it less dependable for complex, open-end responses.
If self/peer-assessments agree within a specified range, whether expressed as a qualitative
grade or as a number of marks, award the higher grade. The possibility of collusion can
be mitigated by spot-checking. Boud (1986) estimates that self/peer-assessment can cut
the teacher’s load by at least 30 per cent.
Group assessment
Carrying out a large project suggests teamwork and group assessment. Teaching large
classes also suggests group assessment, but here the logic is more basic. With four
students per assessment task (whether assignment, project or whatever), you get to assess
a quarter the number you would otherwise, while the students get to learn about
teamwork, and assessing others, not to mention the content of what was being assessed.
Considerations about allocation of assessment results apply as before (pp. 181-2).
Random assessment
Gibbs (1998) cites the Case of the Mechanical Engineer, who initially required 25 reports
through the year, but as each was worth only a trivial 1 per cent, the quality was poor. He
then changed the requirements: students still submitted 25 reports, but in a portfolio by
the end of the semester, as a condition for sitting the final exam, but only four reports,
marked at random, comprised 25 per cent of the final grade. Two huge benefits resulted:
the students worked consistently throughout the term and submitted 25 good reports, and
the teacher’s marking load was a sixth of what it had previously been.
Feedback, open information
Make sure the students know exactly what is expected of them. Following are some
things that cut time considerably.
Get assessment criteria down on a pro-forma, which is returned to the students. You don’t
have to keep writing basically the same comments.
Assess the work globally, but provide a quick rating along such dimensions as may be
seen as desirable. You could rate them on a quantified scale, but that encourages
averaging. It is better to put an X along each line, which just as clearly lets the students
know where they are:
good expression
good coverage
well referenced
poorly expressed
poorly referenced
whatever not
You are letting the student know that these individual qualities are import whether or not
they make a quantifiable difference to the final grade. You could do as is done in
dissertations and treat them as hurdles, which have to be cleared satisfactorily before the
real assessment begins.
Keep a library of comments on computer for each typical assignment you set. They can be
placed in a hierarchy corresponding to the grade or performance level in which they
occur. New comments can of course be added, while it saves you having to keep
rewriting the common ones (‘this point does not follow . . .‘). R. G. Dromey (private
communication) is developing a program that takes this much further, making assessment
of lengthy papers highly reliable, feed-back rich and done in one-third the usual time.
Put multiple copies in the library of previous student assignments (anonymous, but you
had nevertheless better get permission), representing all grades, and annotated with
comments. Students can then see exactly what you want, that you mean it, and what the
difference between different grades is (which is also likely to save time on post mortems).
Part of the felt pressure on both staff and students in large-class assessment is due to the
pile-up of work, as much as to the amount of work itself. One value of multiple
assessments is of course that some can be collected earlier in the seminar if the topics
have been completed, but be careful not to confuse the formative and summative roles of
assessment (pp. 142-3). In large classes, you have to be ruthless about deadlines. It is
important to discuss your deadlines with colleagues to make sure they are evened out for
the students.
Final grades and reporting assessment results
The final stage of assessing involves converting one’s judgements of the student’s
performance into a final summative statement, in the form required by administration.
This raises several issues:
1. Combining results in several assessment tasks to arrive at a final grade
2. Reporting in categories, or along a continuous scale.
3. Is there any distribution characteristic to be imposed on the results?
Combining several assessments within a unit to arrive at a final grade
As the grade awarded for a unit usually depends on performances assessed in a number of
topics, and those topics will be passed at various levels of understanding, we need to
decide how to combine these separate estimates to yield one final grade. Our commitment
to holistic assessment makes this an important issue.
Say we have four assessment tasks: AT1, AT2, AT3 and AT4. (These could be separate
tasks, or portfolio items.) Determining the final grade from these components is
conventionally achieved by weighting important tasks so that they count more. But on
what basis can you calculate that AT3 isworth twice as much (or however much) as
ATI? Expected time taken is the only logical currency I can think of, but that is more a
matter of the nature of the task than of its educational value. In holistic and qualitative
assessment, we must ‘weight’ tasks in other ways.
In selecting these tasks, presumably we wanted each to assess a particular quality. Let us
say AT1 is to assess basic knowledge, the task being ideas taken throughout the course;
AT2 problem-solving (a case study, group assessed); AT3 an overview of the unit (a
concept map); AT4 the quality of the student’s reflections on course content (a journal).
Now we have a logical package, which makes a statement about what we want students to
learn, and how well. The logic is that all aspects being assessed are important, and must
all be passed, at some level of competence (otherwise why teach them?).
There are two main strategies for handling the problem of weighting and combining
assessment results: working qualitatively throughout, and using numerical conversions
for achieving the combinations.
Work qualitatively all the way
There are several ways of preserving your holistic purity:
This dissertation model. Pass/fail on subtasks, grading on the key task only. As long as
minor tasks are satisfactory, the level of pass of the whole depends on the central task,
as is the case in a dissertation. In our example, you might decide that the case study AT2
is the key task, so the qualitative grading of AT2 sets the final grade for the whole unit,
as long as all the other tasks are satisfactory. If they are not, they should be redone and
resubmitted (with due care about the submission and submission deadlines).
The profile. Where all tasks are of equal importance, each is graded qualitatively, then
the pattern is looked at. Is the modal (most typical) response distinction? If so, the
student is mostly working at distinction level, so distinction it is. In the case of an
uneven profile, you might take the highest level as the student’s final grade, on the
grounds that the student has demonstrated this level of performance in at least one task.
A student who got the same grade on all tasks would, however, see this as ‘unfair’.
Alternatively, you can devise a conversion: high distinction = maximum performance on
all tasks; distinction = maximum on two tasks, very good on remaining ones; credit =
one maximum, two very good, rest pass ….and so on.
Im1ied contract. Different tasks are tied to different grades. If students want only a
pass, they do AT1 alone, say, which will show they have attended classes, done the
reading and got the general drift of the main ideas dealt with. To obtain a credit, they
add AT3 to AT1, showing they can hang all the ideas together. Distinction requires all
for the credit plus AT4, to show in addition they have some reflective insights into how
it all works. High distinction needs all the rest plus AT2, the key test of high-level
functioning, the case study.
Weighted profile. Require different levels of performance in different tasks. Some
require a high level of understanding (e.g. relational in SOLO terms), others might
require only ‘knowledge about’ (multistructural), others only knowledge of terms
(unistructural). All have to be passed at the specified level. This is a form of pass/fail,
but the standards of pass vary for different tasks. ‘Weighting’ in this case is not an
arbitrary juggling of numbers, but a profile determined by the structure of the
curriculum objectives. The only problem is in the event of one or more fails. Logically,
you should require a resubmission until the task is passed. Practically, you might have to
allow some failure, and adjust the final grade accordingly.
Convert categories into numbers
First, let us distinguish absolutely clearly between assessing the performance, which may
be done qualitatively, and dealing with the results of that assessment, which may be done
quantitatively. Quantifying performances that have been assessed holistically is simply an
administrative device; there is no educational problem as long as it follows after the
assessment process itself has been completed.
Quantifying can be used for two related tasks:
(a) combining results of different tasks in the same unit to obtain a final grade;
(b) combining the results of different units to obtain a year result, as for example, does
the familiar grade-point average (GPA).
The GPA is the simplest way of quantifying the results of a qualitative assessment: A = 4,
B = 3, C = 2 and D = 1. You weight and combine the results as you like.
You may, however, want finer discrimination within categories. There are two issues to
1 Qualitative: what sort of performance the student’s product is.
2 Relative: how well it represents that sort of performance.
Issue 2 is often addressed in three levels: really excellent As (A+), solid middle-of-the-
road As and As but only just (A-). Here, the original assessment of each task is first done
qualitatively, then quantitatively. The final result using a four-category system is a
number on a 13-point scale (A+=12 …D-=1, F=0). (Note, however, that this is not really
a linear 13-point scale (12 + F), but a two dimensional structure (4 x 3 + F) that we have
opened out for practical reasons.)
The results can now be combined in the usual way, but the conceptua1 difficulty is that
we are back to assigning numerical weights arbitrarily: even taking an average is using a
weighting system of one, which is just as arbitrary as saying that a task should be given a
weighting of 2, or 5.7. Nevertheless, it is what is usually done, and it is at least
convenient. When the results of different subjects have been combined, the final report
can be either along the same scale, or converted to the nearest category grade. For
example, if the weighted outcome score is 9.7, the nearest grade equivalent is 10, which
becomes A-.
Reporting in categories or along a continuous scale
Having combined the results from several assessment tasks, we now have the job of
reporting the results. This is a matter of institutional procedure, and obviously we need to
fit in with that. There is no problem for us level 3 teachers where the policy is to report in
categories (HD, D . . . or A, B, C…). But what if your institution requires you to report in
percentages? Or, as some do, report in percentages so that they can then convert back to
categories: MD = 85+, D = 75-84, credit = 65-74, pass = 50-64? (This last case is
exasperating. Why not report in categories in the first place?)
All is not lost. We simply extend the principle of the 13-point scale.
1. The first step is the same. The assessment tasks are criterion-referenced; to the
objectives, which tells you whether the performance is high distinction (or A) quality,
distinction (or B) quality, and so on through the category system you use.
2. Allocate percentage ranges within each category according to your institutionally
endorsed procedures (see Figure 9.1).
3. Locate the individual student’s performance along that within-category scale.
Per cent
Grading category
HD: highest level objectives attained
D: next highest level objectives reached by student
in the assessment tasks
Cr: student reaches middle level objectives only
P: adequate/minimal levels of competency shown
F: inadequate levels of performance
can be
to suit
Figure 9.1: Assessing qualitatively and reporting as a percentage
Step 3 now uses a much finer scale than the previous three-level scale, something like 15
points within each category, and the student performance is quantified accordingly. You
can do that by using a global or holistic rating scale, or, if you must, by awarding so many
marks for this, so many for that. But at least the major classification into high distinction
or A, or whatever system is used, has been done holistically. The rest is only a matter of
Of course, this is a compromise. We have conceded defeat over the question of
weighting, but the backwash for students is still positive. Students are likely to shoot for
quality, because a category shift means a disproportionately large increase in their final
score. That score also tells them something about the quality of their performance,
because it falls within a range that is tied to a category. So they know the quality of their
performance, and how well they did within the quality of They will also be clearer about
what they would need to do to obtain a better score in future.
In sum, then, qualitative and holistic assessment can meet the logistic and administrative
demands of: (a) combining assessment tasks to achieve a final grade for the unit; and (b)
reporting in percentages, or any other quantitative scale, if that is what is required.
Is there any distribution characteristic to he imposed on the results?
If the answer to the above is ‘yes’, we cannot be so accommodating. Requiring results to
fit some predetermined distribution, normal, rectangular or whatever, cannot be justified
on educational grounds.
I am often surprised in discussing this issue at staff workshops at how many people think
that CRA is pie in the sky because they must grade on the curve. Few institutions are in
the event rigid on this point. Many ‘suggest’ that grades follow a distribution — ‘It would
usually be expected that in large classes no more than 10 per cent of high distinctions be
awarded….’ but I have found that the operative word is ‘usually’. In most case, it is
accepted that in ‘special’ circumstances for example, a criterion-referenced system —
the grades of a particular class might depart from the suggested guidelines. Mind you,
calling CPA ‘a special circumstance’ is galling, but if a special circumstance is the Trojan
horse that makes aligned teaching possible, so be it.
If a teacher is employed in an institution where summative results really are required to
adhere closely to some predetermined curve, there is a problem. The solution then can
only be political: lobby to get the policy changed.
Implementing assessment package 2
Let us now return to the problem we faced at the beginning of the chapter implementing
assessment package 2 in a class of 400 first-year students in a laboratory-based science
course, say biology. You might remember that practicalities suggested MC as the
preferred mode of assessment. We now know that there are many better alternatives. How
might we now address that problem?
First, let us make the scene, a common one, more specific.
Class: 400 first-year students.
Teaching structure: two plenary lectures, one tutorial of 20 groups of 20 students, and
one 2-3 hour lab a week, again 20 groups of 20 students. There are eight major topics
introduced and variously elaborated in the lectures and tutorials over the 12-week
Staff: one lecturer in charge who delivers all the lectures and takes a couple of tutorials.
Three teaching assistants between them take the remaining tutorials and help with the
assessment. Twenty student demonstrators conduct the labs and assess the lab reports
for their own groups.
Assessment (existing):
Per cent of final
Final exam 2 hours:
Lab reports
1 hour MC
1 hour MC
2 essay questions
Institutional regulations require that at least 60 per cent of the final grade is determined
by invigilated exam. The mid-semester is used to alleviate the pressure at the end of the
semester, and to provide feedback to students. The MCs are all machine scored, so the
main assessment load is provided by two essay questions, which are marked by checklist
by the lecturer three tutors, and by spot-checking the lab reports. Say that the final occurs
at the end of the examination weeks, and there is only a weekend and five working days
in which to mark, collate and report the assessment result.
In previous years, there was pressure to cull the first years by about 50 per cent, in order
to ease pressures in the second year, and to focus on promising research students. This
pressure led to grading on a curve designed so that the bottom half received no more than
a pass; credit and above thus became the de facto prerequisite for the second year.
However, with the current realization that more students means more money, that
pressure has largely disappeared, and with it the pressure for norm-referencing using
predetermined grade proportions.
Problems with existing assessment
The major problem is that the assessment tasks are overwhelmingly quantitative, and
address declarative knowledge. An attempt was made to offset the MCs with the essay
questions, but the gesture is nullified by checklist marking. Students are not in practice
encouraged to look for relating ideas, broad principles or functioning knowledge. The
only non-declarative knowledge is assessed in the lab reports, but they contribute 10 per
cent only and are in the event assessed by student demonstrators, not content experts. An
attempt is made to provide formative feedback, apart from informal feedback in tutorials
and labs, with the mid-semester, but it is in the form of marks only.
A suggested rescue package
Our present task is to design a package that would work for the given teaching structure.
Let us say that resource and other limitations prevent any drastic change in the number of
plenaries, labs and tutorials, and that the average assessment time per student for the final
exam cannot exceed much more than 15 minutes per student (which rules out portfolios
and other extended qualitative assessment tasks).
We do not immediately consult Table 9.2 under ‘rapid assessment’ and start throwing in
concept maps, cloze tests, gobbets and so on. We first should specify what we want to
assess, what our objectives are; then we might look at the most practical ways of
assessing that, given the present constraints. Given the number of component
assessments, the need to weight and combine them, and traditional practice, one advisable
constraint would be to collate and report the assessment results quantitatively, even
though we shall be using qualitative tasks for the assessments proper (see pp. 191-2).
Table 9.1: Required levels and kinds of understanding, and suitable assessment tasks
Objectives Kinds and levels of
Suitable assessment tasks
1 Basic facts, terminology
2 Topic knowledge
3 Discipline knowledge
4 Functioning knowledge
5 Laboratory skills
6 Monitoring and
evaluation skills
recall, recognition
individual topics, relational,
some multistructural relations
between topics
conception of unit as a whole
topic or discipline knowledge
put to work
procedural knowledge
metacognitive knowledge, self-
directed learning
MC or short answer
gobbets, critical incidents
letter to a friend, concept
problem-solving, research
laboratory behaviour, lab
self- and peer-assessment
Table 9.1 suggests some of the levels or kinds of understanding that we should want from
the students, and what kinds of assessment tasks, practical within our constraints, might
be used.
1. Basic factual knowledge and terminology is suitably assessed by MC or short answer,
as long as we are clear that that is all they are doing, and that these modes do not
dominate the assessment package. Let us use short answer for the mid-term, which
being open-ended might also show more revealing misunderstandings than an MC, and
when marking time is not so pressing. MC will then be used in the final exam when
time is more pressing.
2. Topics ideally should be understood at least at relational level, but ‘knowing about’ will
do as long as the most important topics are understood relationally, and as functioning
knowledge. The topics could then be embedded in gobbets, at the individual topic level
in the mid-semester, and gobbets requiring integration of topics in the final. A critical
incident or case study in the final would also be useful; for example, the student selects
a newspaper clipping of an eco-problem and relates it to topics dealt with.
3. By ‘discipline knowledge’ I mean the picture of the whole: having studied a list of
topics that make up a first-year biology course, what is the student’s view of biology
itself? Letter to a friend is a good way of ascertaining this (Trigwell and Prosser 1990).
A description or list of topics studied (multistructural) is not good enough, a working
view of an integrated subject called biology is very good (relational), a changed
perspective of the biological world would be marvellous (extended abstract), if rather
unlikely at this level.
4. Functioning knowledge. It is reasonable to expect that students can solve real world
problems. It is suggested that six such problems are given throughout the semester as
the subject of peer-assessment, much as described by Gibbs (1998), two such problems
being self- and peer-assessed for inclusion in the final grade (Boud 1995).
5. Laboratory skills are mainly assessed in situ by student demonstrators, and probably do
not go much further than the procedural level, i.e. correct performance of laboratory
procedures and writing them up appropriately. Laboratory work ultimately involves
functioning knowledge, but it is doubtful if it would be validly assessable in the first
year under these conditions. This can be better addressed in labs in higher years.
6. Monitoring and evaluation skills, as argued elsewhere (pp. 92-3), are essential
learnings for students if they are to become autonomous and self-directed in their
tertiary learning, and later in their professional lives. Internalized standards of
competence, which enable reflective thinking and self-direction, can be developed by
self- and peer-assessment (Boud 1995; Gibbs 1998). Essentially, four of the six
problems are assessed by a peer according to a marking sheet, and then each is returned
to the owner. The last two problems become part of the final grade: students first self-
assess on a separate sheet of paper, which is handed in, then the peer-assessment is
made. If these agree within specified limits, the higher grade is taken; if they disagree,
the lecturer adjudicates, and also spot-checks some of the others at random.
A range of assessment tasks has emerged here: quantitative (MC and short answer),
qualitative (three gobbets, critical incident, letter to a friend, problem-solving) and
procedural (lab report). For logistic reasons we need to turn all these into numbers, while
retaining the qualitative nature of the majority of the assessment tasks. The qualitative
tasks, with the possible exception of the problems (see below), may be assessed with
SOLO, using a five-point scale within each:
SOLO level
extended abstract
In other words, top of the multistructural range is in conventional terms a bare pass (10
out of a possible 20) in six of the main assessment tasks. This sends a strong message to
the students that ‘knowing more’ just will not do; you have to structure and use your
How this applies to the problems is held in abeyance at this stage. It depends on each
individual problem, but as we are also using these problems for self- and peer-
assessment, the assessment procedures need to be especially clear. In short, the lecturer
needs to devise a 20-point marking scheme that students can use, but there is no reason
why it too shouldn’t be structured along similar lines: four categories (SOLO or other),
five points within each.
The SOLO scale arbitrarily but conveniently yields a maximum of 20 ‘marks’ per task,
which can be combined with the results from other tasks, including the MC. This may
sound complicated but in fact it is not, as way be seen from the following assessment
Max. points
Final exam
Max. points
2 gobbets, 20 each
Short answer
1 gobbet
1 critical incident
1 letter to a friend
2 problems (SA/PA)
With 20 points for the lab report, the total number of points becomes 200: divide by two
if you want to report in ‘percentages’.
The weightings here for mid-semester, final and labs are identical to those for the
previous, traditional, assessment. However, these can easily be changed, if you think, say,
the lab reports ought to get more and the problems less (being self-and peer-assessed);
perhaps you would prefer to leave the self- and peer-assessments out of the final grade.
Let us now take a look at the marking load. Let us say that each of the qualitative
assessments, problems aside, is written on no more than one page. You read this, first
decide on its category (multistructural, relational) and then you rate how well it
exemplifies that category on a five-point scale. This takes no more than five minutes,
with practice rather less. (It will, however, be necessary for the lecturer and the TA to
have a training session, and to reach a criterion of at least 90 per cent agreement allowing
one category difference, which is better than the usual agreement on essay ratings using
the Bloom taxonomy (Hattie and Purdie 1998).)
The time needed for assessing individual students now becomes:
For the mid-term
The short answer test
2 gobbets
For the final
3 qualitative assessments
spot-checking problems
5 mins
10 mins
15 mins
minimal, clerical work
15 mins max.
5 mins?
20 mins maximum
In addition, you will probably want to spot-check the demonstrators’ making of the lab
reports. If this is too much, perhaps you could cut out the critical incident, or a gobbet.
As to formative assessment, that synonym for good teaching (pp.142-3), the previous
scheme did very little apart from reporting relative progress in marks. The changes
suggested here for the summative assessment tasks also suggest ways in which the
plenary and tutorials can be used more effectively (see Chapters 5 and 6). One would be
to use the pauses in the lecture (see pp. 106-9) and the ‘three-minute essay’ to provide
feedback: what students thought to be the main point of a particular lecture could become
the focus of tutorial discussion. Like the four peer-assessed problems, also carried out in
the plenaries, these essays could be required but not formally assessed before the student
is allowed to sit the final exam.
We now have an assessment package that takes only a little more time, but it is
manageable within the resources allowed. The assessments specifically address the
higher-level objectives of the unit, so that they will encourage better quality learning from
the students, will equally certainly be more interesting for both you and the students and
will provide much more effective formative feedback to students.
None of these suggestions is cast in stone, however. You might prefer fewer gobbets. If
we didn’t operate with the restriction of 60 per cent final exam, we might have had fewer
plenaries (lectures) and more out-of-class group tasks that would save assessment time.
The important thing is the intention and conceptualization, not the specific techniques
you use. Note that when you do rethink what you are doing to one aspect, assessment,
adaptive changes occur throughout the system: objectives become clearer, teaching
methods themselves improve, and of course the assessment tasks get at what they should
be assessing.
Table 9.2: Some different assessment tasks and the kinds of learning assessed
Assessment mode Most likely kind of learning assessed
Extended prose, essay-type
essay exam
open book
assignment, take home
Objective test
multiple choice
ordered outcome
Performance assessment
seminar, presentation
critical incidents
reflective journal
case study, problems
Rapid assessments (large class)
concept maps
Venn diagrams
three-minute essay
short answer
letter to a friend
rote, question spotting, speed structuring
as for exam, but less memory, coverage
read widely, interrelate, organize, apply copy
recognition, strategy, comprehension, coverage
hierarchies of understanding
skills needed in real life
communication skills
concentrating on relevance, application
responding interactively
reflection, application, sense of relevance
application, research skills
reflection, application, sense of relevance
application, professional skills
reflection, creativity, unintended outcomes
coverage, relationships
level of understanding, sense of relevance
realizing the importance of significant detail
recall units of information, coverage
holistic understanding, application, reflection
comprehension of main ideas
Summary and conclusions
This has been an encyclopaedic chapter. Table 9.2 is a better way of summarizing the
major points on assessment tasks than section summaries.
Expressing and reporting the results of assessment
We then addressed administrative issues: how to combine results to give a single
summative statement, how to report in numerical form such as percentages when assessing
holistically and how to avoid grading on the curve.
When the final grade depends on performances assessed in a number of topics, passed at
various levels of understanding, the different results need to be combined. Two general
ways of combining results were described: consistently holistic, and doing the major
assessments holistically, then converting into numbers for ease of administrative handling.
The latter is a compromise but the important point is that grades are defined qualitatively in
the first instance, and the result tells students something meaningful. The one problem we
couldn’t solve was an uncompromising insistence on reporting grades along a curve, which
makes criterion-referencing impossible.
The major thrust of both chapters on assessment is really quite simple. You can’t beat
backwash, so join it. Students will always second guess the assessment task, and then learn
what they think will meet those requirements. But if those assessment requirements mirror
the curriculum, there is no problem. Students will be learning what they are supposed to be
Implementing assessment package 2
Finally we returned to the difficulty facing first-year teachers in particular: how to assess
qualitatively under the usual conditions of large numbers of students and poor resources.
Has this helped you with your own assessment problems? Turn to Task 9.1.
Task 9.1: Choosing appropriate modes of assessment
What key topics do you want to assess? Turn to your objectives (Chapter 3, Task 3.1):
What less important topics do you want to assess?
What levels of understanding of each? Use the appropriate verbs to operationalize this.
Do the topics refer to declarative, functioning knowledge, both?
Are there any basic facts, skills, you want to check?
What physical constraints do you have to accommodate:
Large-class assessment methods?
Final exam? If so, is it invigilated?
Now choose from Table 9.3 those assessment modes that seem most suitable:
How do you propose to combine the results from each assessment task to produce a
student’s final grade for the unit?
Holistic throughout?
Holistic then convert to numbers?
Further reading
Boud, D. (1995) Enhancing Learning through Self-assessment, London: Kogan Page
Brown S. and Knight, P. (1994) Assessing Learners in Higher Education, London: Kogan
Erwin, T. D. (1991) Assessing Student Learning and Development, San Fransico: Jossey-
Gibbs, G., Habeshaw, S. and Habeshaw, T. (1989) 53 Interesting Ways to Assess Your
Students, Bristol: Technical and Educational Services.
Gibbs, G., Jenkins, A. and Wisker, G. (1992) Assessing More Students Oxford:
PCFC/Rewley Press.
Harris, D. and Bell, C. (1986) Evaluating and Assessing for Learning, London: Kogan
Nightingale, P., Te Wiata, I., Toohey, S., Ryan, G., Hughes, C. and Magln, D. (eds)
(1996) Assessing Learning in Universities, Kensington, NSW: Committee for the
Advancement of University Teaching/Professional Development Centre, UNSW.
Stephenson, J. and Laycock, M. (1993) Using Contracts in Higher Education, London:
Kogan Page.
The list of practical suggestions on assessment is formidable; the above is a good sample.
Some are obviously one-topic: Boud on self-assessment, Stephenson on contracts.
Nightingale et al. collate ‘best practice from 100 university teachers, grouped under
‘verb’ headings: thinking critically, solving problems, performing skills, reflecting,
demonstrating knowledge and understanding, designing, creating, performing,
communicating. The other books are good sources for ideas.
Reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John Biggs, © John Biggs 1999.
TEHE Ref: R131
Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (pp. 165-203). Buckingham, UK: SRHE and
Open University Press.
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Drawing on a post-critical higher education theory, we have argued in the previous chapter that comparative education that is continuously re-imagining itself within an ubuntu or democratic citizenship fashion has the capacity to critique itself constantly and quest for the better. Furthermore, if applied to the African university, this has a reformative character necessary for the transformation and decolonisation of the university. In this chapter, we argue that within an ubuntu ethic, higher education teaching and learning are intrinsically and extrinsically linked to acts of transformation, engagement and comparative education. We start by considering teaching and learning in higher education briefly.
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The workplace-based assessment (WPBA) Anaesthesia-Clinical Evaluation Exercise (A-CEX) is used in anaesthetic training in the Royal College of Anaesthetists 2021 curriculum. WBPAs are part of a multimodal approach to assess competencies, but can be limited by their granularity. They are an essential component of assessment and are used in both a formative and summative capacity. The A-CEX is a form of WBPA which evaluates knowledge, behaviours and skill of anaesthetists in training across a variety of 'real world' situations. An entrustment scale is assigned to the evaluation which has implications for future practice and ongoing supervision requirements. Despite being a key component in the curriculum the A-CEX has drawbacks. Its qualitative nature results in variation in feedback provided amongst assessors, which may have ongoing implications for clinical practice. Furthermore, the completion of an A-CEX can be viewed as a 'tick box' exercise and does not guarantee that learning has taken place. Currently no direct evidence exists as to the benefit of the A-CEX in anaesthetic training, but extrapolated data from other studies may show validity. However, the assessment remains a key part of the 2021 curriculum, Future areas for consideration include education for those assessing trainees via A-CEX, altering the matrix of assessment to a less granular approach and a longitudinal study as to the utility of A-CEX in anaesthetics training.
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