For assessment to count as authentic it must mean something to students

Stop tinkering around the edges of assessment and be prepared to think radically about engaging with the whole student, urges Jan McArthur.

Jan McArthur is senior lecturer in education and social justice in the Department of Educational Research at Lancaster University.

Covid-19 has led many academics to rethink their assessment practices. Well-worn paths of assessment, such as large traditional exams, have had to be replaced, or some proxy method used to stand in for them.

Many people now naturally ask, “what is going to change about university assessment because of Covid-19?” I suggest a far more important and revealing question would be “what is not going to change?” The assessment challenges induced by Covid-19 opened many possibilities to fundamentally rethink why and how we assess, but I see little evidence of this actually happening.

Tinkering with orthodoxy

Instead of a revolution in assessment thinking, we have witnessed an adjustment where necessary changes have been made, but fundamental principles not rethought. We have been tinkering around the edges of assessment orthodoxy. The belief that exams provide a rigorous “gold standard” of assessment remains deeply ingrained in higher education, despite the parallel development of an understanding of assessment for learning.

The research evidence to support the pre-eminence given to the traditional exam is thin, while evidence that exams encourage a narrow and formulaic engagement with knowledge is considerable. Instead of using Covid-19 to rethink why we use exams, and our beliefs about the purposes of assessment, many universities have pursued technocratic solutions that reproduce the trusted orthodoxy of the time-limited, unseen exam as closely as possible.

Thus we have the rise in proctoring software and privatised invigilation: we now peer into students’ bedrooms to watch them undertake assessments. In a recent example a medical student was initially denied graduation because a private invigilator deemed malpractice when the student was seen trying to think through an answer on a blank piece of paper. Even if this is a rule – what is its purpose? How does it relate to whether this student has the knowledge and compassion to work as a doctor? It suggests to me a gross misunderstanding of the purposes of assessment.

Far too often in response to Covid-19 we are ensuring our practices change as little as possible, and justify this in the name of maintaining standards. When students do better because more of their final results are based on coursework we decry this as grade inflation, rather than considering the possibility that a different assessment method may have enabled a better engagement with knowledge.

Gentle reform – student involvement

While some people remain wedded to traditional assessment methods, we cannot deny the work over many years of those who seek to realise the learning potential of assessment and to ensure assessment acts as a valid evaluation of what a student knows and can do. There are two particular reforms that I will focus on: student involvement in assessment and authentic assessment, both are broadly linked to the wider assessment for learning movement.

Changing practices to involve students more in the assessment process is worthwhile. It speaks to the fact that students must understand an assessment system if they are expected to flourish within it. It also speaks to the expertise that students bring to any educational relationship, with perspectives that may be quite different to those of academics.

One of the best ways for students to understand how assessment works is to be an assessor themselves, and this has led work to support self and peer assessment. Such involvement is seen to a) improve actual learning, b) improve assessment results and c) enable students to develop skills and dispositions to continue learning beyond university, especially as they take up professional roles in society.

This last point is often related to the other reform of authentic assessment, which has become popular and is often touted as the way ahead for relevant and robust assessment. Authentic assessment seeks to ensure that the ways we assess students focuses on future relevance and the ways they will need to apply the knowledge learned.

This is often described in terms of “real world” tasks. An example is health and medical students using simulations to learn clinical skills. It is far harder to find examples of disciplines or professions in which a traditional exam could be considered authentic. Application of knowledge and the use of professional judgement tend to be more important than rote memorisation for most things we do.

Radical change – thinking of the whole student

Welcome as moves towards student involvement in assessment and authentic assessment are, they do not go far enough to really transform assessment to help us reach that goal of a higher education system which nurtures both individual and social wellbeing. And this for me speaks to the role of higher education ensuring greater social justice within its precincts and in society as a whole. In order to achieve these aims we need a richer and more holistic sense of our students, of society and of assessment itself.

I extend the notion of student involvement to think in terms of the whole student: to think philosophically about the relationship between assessment and students’ self-realisation. The issue thus becomes, the extent to which assessment is involved in our students: how it contributes, or not, to their wellbeing, personal and intellectual growth and their development as constructive members of society.

We need to think about what messages of self-worth we are instilling in students through our assessment methods. The fetishisation of grades is individually damaging and socially unproductive. It is a fairly shallow sense of self-worth.

To be clear, this is not to say that levels of achievement do not matter, nor that we give all students the same mark in order to avoid hurt feelings. It is legitimate and appropriate to distinguish different levels of engagement with knowledge or a task. Though there is scant research evidence that we can in any meaningful way distinguish between work at 64 per cent and 68 per cent.

This is also not to deny that a student should not feel proud when they get an A. But rather that the sense of pride should not end there. What really matters in terms of nurturing a student as a flourishing individual within society is their sense of the usefulness of what they know or can do. Their sense of the esteem and recognition rightfully theirs for being able to do something useful to themselves and others. And by use I don’t mean instrumental or economic use: bringing joy through beautiful music is socially useful.

My own understanding of social justice draws on critical theory for which a central idea is this inter-connection between individual and social wellbeing. A just or happy society is therefore more than the sum total of happy individuals. To be fulfilled as a human being we must engage in mutual recognition of our integrity and worth. Again this does not mean being popular or submissive. Our contribution may be to challenge entrenched assumptions, offer new insights and unsettle cherished beliefs.

This sense of achievement will not necessarily exist in every assessment task. In many disciplines we work via building blocks of knowledge; with simpler, discrete tasks enabling the student to build the intellectual resources to tackle something larger. But, if a student has nowhere in their university assessment a chance to recognise their work as socially useful, and to see others recognise it as such, then this is a very diminished educational experience.

This brings me back to the question of authentic assessment. The problem I find is that appeals to authentic assessment often conflate the real world with the world of work. As the educational philosopher Christopher Winch has observed, work is an important part of our wellbeing. But this does not mean that the world of work is the only thing of importance.

From a critical theory perspective we cannot disarticulate economic and social activity and wellbeing. Authentic assessment is seriously undermined if it becomes a proxy for “what employers want”. Not only does this restrict our understanding of social worth to the purely economic, but it distorts it to the perspectives of just one group and reinforces submissive relationships. Employment should be a relationship of equals; working should be an expression, in part, of our individual self-worth, and that worth is socially-constructed.

Genuine authentic assessment, therefore, also comes back to the student as a whole person. It is about the authenticity of the student as a person, not simply a particular task. Again, this enables us to have the dual flourishing of individual and social wellbeing. The problems facing society, including the economic, will require creative and flexible minds able to engage with complex problems and offer inclusive solutions. Assessment should encourage both the confidence to not conform and the necessary judgement to see our own contributions in the context of others. We do nothing to further economic or social interests by developing an educated workforce of compliant professionals.

Faced with the challenges of Covid-19, let us not tinker around the edges of assessment, which could mean bad practice made even worse. Let us aspire to tap into the learning potential of authentic assessment – in its broadest sense – to enable our students to be proud of their rich engagement with complex knowledge and the individual and social benefits this can bring.

This is not utopian. If nothing else, it is simply a very efficient use of educational resources: but it is also so much more. I acknowledge that we reasonably expect academics to fully engage with what I have discussed while under the current immense pressures of the pandemic. But please let us keep the door open when this is over. And where we can, think differently, not just adjust. And never lose sight when we set an assessment task to ask – what is its purpose?

You can view and download Jan McArthur’s new working paper on rethinking student involvement in assessment for the Centre for Global Higher Education here.

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