Tony Gurr

ASSESSING How We ASSESS Learners (Part Üç)

In Assessment, Our Schools, Our Universities on 11/03/2011 at 8:00 am

The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny. 

Albert Ellis

Ellis had it right – has it right.

Pointing the finger, looking for scapegoats or burying our heads in the sandare all just, plain dumb!

And, just “so… 2oth Century, darling“!

In Part Two of this little “dizi”, I tried to highlight some of the challenges facing learners, educators and administrators with the way we currently “do assessment”. I noted that all these challenges have a kind of “symbiotic relationship” and that it’s difficult to tease them apart.

The bottom line is that all of them “belong” to us all.

Those of you that want to get that “cushy, civil servant’s job” in the Ministry of Passing-The-Buck should stop reading now – and go to another blog!

As I said, in a much earlier post:

  • Change involves going to some of our “darker places” (as Luke Skywalker had to), ending the blame game – and it also takes more than an ounce of courage

  • Courage is helped along best through truth, acceptance, forgiveness and connecting with others on things that “matter”


So, what is the “püf noktası” in all of these discussions about assessment in education?

There are three:

  • All of the problems we examined come down to the fact that we still haven’t quite “got” the fact that assessment is something that teachers DO WITH students BEFORE, DURING and AFTER learning not simply something we DO TO students AFTER learning
  • There has been a “surge of interest” in the assessment of student learning and its links to learning across education over the past ten years. Despite this interest, assessment across our schools, colleges and universities remains under-conceptualised and very little has changed in how we “do” assessment
  • We haven’t quite got to the point of “walking-our-talk” and much of this comes down to the fact that we have avoided meaningful discussion of the assumptions we hold about assessment – we haven’t gone to that dark place enough and we haven’t connected enough with “what really matters” in assessment


Let’s take that last one first.

There are more student complaints and litigation about unfair assessment than in any other area in university life – and if primary kids knew how to save enough of their pocket money to hire lawyers, we’d be in trouble there, too.

Legal action in “all things assessment” is telling us more than we need to “watch our backs”, it lets us know that we are stillin danger of using assessment to stop learning instead of to start learning” (Race).

Let’s take the example of an academic trying to get something published (and, yes I know I have been critical of this in the past – but many research papers help us learn, grow and get off the planet faster).

When researchers and academics submit articles for consideration by refereed journals, they do not expect them to be rejected out of hand without any comments or feedback.  What they expect is “constructive feedback” about how the article could be improved, suggestions related to what may be missing and possibly some encouragement to re-submit a revised version.

In short, they expect to be treated as “insiders”.

The development of “assessment thinking” across education has been part of a wider paradigm shift in how we approach learning and teaching. The research of the past 25 years into education and learning has seen the learner become of central importance.

The motives, activities and feelings of the learner (regardless of “age”) have become much more important than those of the teacher – and also content. Teaching itself has become redefined as the “facilitation of learning” and content has been redefined by reference to learning outcomes (rather than teaching inputs).

Both students and educators are evolving as “insiders” in the process of teaching and learning – and needs to be also true for assessment.

If we see students as assessment “outsiders”, we miss many valuable opportunities to encourage reflection and support them in evaluating their own progress and to obtain feedback on how to improve our own teaching.

It’s that simple!

Educators also need to recognise that assessment is not only central to learning and teaching, but that it is something that comes naturally to students. All learners, to various degrees, are all involved in regulating their own learning through processes of self-assessment and self-monitoring (Nicol, 2007).


What about learning?

We all know that surface or superficial learning is a key challenge for all those involved in education – and other educational stakeholders who “hire” the talent educational institutions “create”. We also know that this type of superficial learning is encouraged by:

  • Lack of choice of subjects and methods of study
  • An excessive amount of material in the curriculum
  • Lack of opportunity to pursue subjects in depth
  • Relatively high class-contact hours
  • Threatening and anxiety-provoking assessment systems
  • Assessment methods that emphasise recall or application of trivial knowledge
  • Poor or absent feedback on progress

We all know this, right?


OK – who shall we blame? Who should we tar n’ feather this time?

Race (2002) gives us a list of “targets” – and reminds us “we can only ever really solve problems which we own. But the assessment problem is so widely owned. It’s dangerously easy to feel there’s just nothing that we can do about it. It’s easy enough to identify scapegoats, including:”

  • Professional bodies, in whose name we feel we need to stick to the status quo;
  • Pre-university education systems, which cast the die and train pupils into particular expectations of learning and assessment;
  • Institutional, faculty and departmental assessment regulations, which limit our room for manoeuvre;
  • Teaching and learning strategies, which are so all-encompassing that we can’t suspend belief and start afresh again;
  • Heads of department or school, who are often seen (sometimes seen wrongly) to be content with the status quo;
  • External examiners who would have to be convinced when radical changes may need to be made;
  • Students themselves who could or would complain about rapid changes to the level of the playing field or the position of the goalposts (even if the whole is enveloped in thick fog at present);
  • The world outside academe, where there’s a view about what a graduate should be, and so on;
  • Journalists, broadcasters and editors who would give us a hard time if anything were to be found wrong in the way we did the job we are paid to do;
  • Politicians and policy-makers who got to where they are by succeeding in the system of assessment we already have, and dare not admit that it might have been flawed;
  • Parents, employers, taxpayers and others who foot the bill for higher education.

Thank God – for scapegoats!


It is often said that, “‘if you want to change student learning, then change the method of assessment” (Brown, Bull and Pendlebury, 1997).

Easier said than done, Tony!

It’s true – because the core purposes of assessment do involve tensions and multiple demands, reform is difficult to achieve (Carless, 2007) – difficult, but not impossible.

The starting point is “us” – as students, as educators, as institutions – not our mothers!


As Ghandi said:

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”


I’d like to thank everybody who made winning this Emmy possible – I couldn’t have done it without you all! Clem & Alison – for showing me the value-added a teacher can have on a working-class “kid” growing up on a council estate in Manchester. My family – for helping to shape the man I am today, even if they sometimes never totally got it. My assessment “gurus” and “mentors” – Phil Race, Sally Brown, David Carless, Peter Knight, Caroline Gipps – plus, the visionaries and risk-takers at Alverno (for “opening my eyes”), my plain-speaking friends at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education in Melbourne and the guys on the REAP Project for bringing “the good fight” into the 21st Century.

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