Communicating about assessment


(A version of the introductory paper on assessment delivered at the Exeter symposium on Assessment: Tradition and Innovation, 20th April, 2002 by Dr Siobhán Holland)

One of the key functions of assessment is its role in inducting students into the conversation that the discipline is having with itself. The ways in which assessment tasks are written for, and explained to, students and the language that accompanies their return in feedback and in tutorial meetings, can impact profoundly on students’ levels of engagement with, and progress in, the disciplines of Literature, Language and Creative Writing.

Assessed Skills
The QAA English Benchmarking Statement provides the following summary of the qualities assessment in English degrees seeks to reward:

  • breadth and depth of subject knowledge, including relevant contextual knowledge and the demonstration of powers of textual analysis as appropriate;
  • the management of discursive analysis and argument, including the awareness of alternative or contextualising lines of argument;
  • rhetorical strategies which demonstrate the convincing deployment and evaluation of evidence;
  • independence of mind and originality of approach in interpretative and written practice;
  • fluent and effective communication of ideas, and sophistication of writing skills;
  • critical acumen;
  • informed engagement with scholarly debates.

The statement goes on to say that ‘Assessment criteria should be specified in relation to the programme, unit or module as appropriate, and specific variations, for example, in relation to oral assessment or work-related reports, should be made explicit’ (Section 4.2.4).
Which of these qualities should be most rewarded in marking is a perennial source of discussion amongst lecturers.

For as long as English has relied on traditional assessment forms such as the essay and the exam, lecturers have been able to assume that students arrive with an implicit understanding of the terms on which assessment is carried out. However, even traditional modes of assessment are becoming less familiar to the new undergraduate, as the priorities of the school examining system have shifted.

For students who are approaching university with little or no prior knowledge of higher education, the conventions of university marking systems will be unclear and students whose families have had no contact with higher education can find it difficult to persuade them that 58% is evidence of a creditable performance. A student moving from one institution to another might well find that her high 2:1 average now earns her a 58% or a ‘9’ on a 15 point marking scale without any full explanation of the equivalences and differences between systems. Changes in students’ educational experiences prior to university now mean that even the traditional forms of assessment need to be discussed more openly than they have been before.

Assessment criteria can go some way to demystifying assessment where students and staff make use of them in conversations about assessment, in the writing of assessment tasks and assignments, and in marking and feedback procedures. A considerable number of the queries about assessment directed to the English Subject Centre have concerned the drafting of these criteria. However, criteria will not affect the assessment culture if they are located only in student handbooks, arguably the least-read texts in English departments. Too many institutions have enforced the use of feedback forms which are supposed to be used to generate a mark, but which are used retrospectively with a little creative box-ticking to justify a mark arrived at by more traditional means.

Approaches to assessment which go beyond the ‘tick-box’ strategy and try to redress the lack of conversation about criteria between lecturers and students are often dismissed as exercises in ‘spoon-feeding.’ There is genuine anxiety that describing assessment fully, or involving students in discussions about assessment in a sustained way, will lead to a dumbing down of standards, an increase in prescriptivism and the devaluation of the originality and risk-taking which characterises the best work in English Literature, Language and Creative Writing at undergraduate level.

In fact, spoon-feeding is only ever a problem if people have been equipped to eat by other means. If students already understand the conditions that constrain the discipline’s conversation with itself, and are already competent to join in that conversation confidently, then guidance about assessment might well be a hindrance. Guidance about assessment that suggests assessment in our disciplines is about conformity to procedures, for example, will always be unhelpful. Criteria for Creative Writing, for example, which downplay creativity or avoid discussing publishability as a problematic criterion for assessment will at worst mislead students as writers about their undecideable relationship with their readers.

My sense is that productive conversations about assessment, which figure assessment criteria as rules in a game rather than as fixed procedures, are taking place in English departments. They have also led to the production of materials which have helped to improve performance in undergraduate essay-writing. Students at Sheffield Hallam who complete self-assessment forms for each piece of assessed work are being encouraged to think carefully about the relationships between intention and communication and information and argument. The students at University of Northumbria at Newcastle who can consult an ‘essay bank’ before they write their first essays have a chance to engage with the limits and possibilities of the essay genre before they make their first attempts at it themselves. Both of these initiatives were developed as part of the Assessment & the Expanded Text project in English departments.

The introduction of new forms of assessment can also create opportunities for dialogue about assessment between lecturers and students. Students might, for example, be invited to identify their own set of criteria for oral assessment, or to discuss or extend criteria established by the course tutor. Tutors using group assessment or assessing contributions to e-mail discussion lists may find that involving students in discussions about appropriate contribution levels, content and criteria can be helpful. The use of formative assessment can work against a culture in which students habitually write essays the night before the deadline and it can promote a culture of practice and improvement. Meanwhile, the use of portfolios, and the introduction of personal development planning systems throughout Higher Education (which encourage students to review their progress with a personal tutor), can help to encourage students to reflect on assessment processes.

These changes encourage students to engage more fully with the discourse of literary criticism. Like lecturers writing documents for the Quality Assurance Agency or for internal review procedures, students are often nervous about writing in a borrowed discourse, one with hazy rules, hidden opportunities for misadventure, and uncertain reward prospects. Communicating more clearly with students about our expectations of assessment need not lead to ‘spoon-feeding’ them. There are ways of managing this communication so that the burden of marking and feedback is kept stable or distributed more efficiently, and communicating effectively with student is one of the most useful ways of combating plagiarism . Nothing is to be gained, eventually, from the continuance of the status quo which has its rules, and gate-keeps the discipline’s discourse but only fully rewards those students who not only write and think well, but deduce from traces and fragments of comment the expectations that are implicit in the marking process. If we move away from a culture in which it is slightly vulgar to clarify the discussion about assessment, we will achieve real progress for students of English Literature, Language and Creative Writing.

Assessment Exercises

The Assessment Exercises, used at the Exeter symposium on Assessment: Tradition and Innovation (20th April, 2002) are designed to encourage better communication about assessment between lecturers and their peers and lecturers and their students. They deal with issues such as assessment design, understanding assessment, marking exams, and productive feedback.