Assessment is a very complex component of any educational provision.
In HE settings, no matter what the assessment task, we are charged with making difficult, multi-faceted academic judgements that aim to:
- describe where someone is
- advise them about where to go and how to get there
- encourage them to want to make that journey.
Here I’m focusing on the third item on this list and on how a secure values-base for an assessment system can have good consequences for practice, in particular with regards to the pivotal role of ‘encouragement’ in learning and teaching.
What we value and how we know
I lead on the assessment policies and practices in a very large university psychology department. Our approach to assessment is founded on the core value that holds (of course) that any assessment system should be based on a set of core values! And these core values have been made clear in many ways over a period of years. They have shifted from being implicit, unspoken, assumptions about how things should be done, into a set of documented statements about these matters.
We might argue that the same good thing has happened to the criteria by which we assess students in recent decades. Improved marking practices and student facing course documentation mean that these no longer have a private existence, taking different forms in different academic heads.
Just like assessment criteria, the fact that our assessment principles are now a matter of public concern brings with it all the benefits that shared understandings and ownership of things bring, not least of which is that it becomes possible for them to change and develop. In this way assessment values both shape, and are shaped by, a collective academic direction of travel. They suggest things that we should (and should not) do, and they become the principles upon which resolutions to problems are grounded.
The least dangerous assumption
Let’s look at just one of these core values which we have adapted from our research work in the area of learning and communication disabilities. This is the principle of “the least dangerous assumption”, which asserts that “in the absence of conclusive data educational decisions should be based on assumptions which, if incorrect, will have the least dangerous effect on the student”. For us this means that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, when giving feedback on a piece of assessed work, we assume that it:
- represents this student’s best effort
- in their current circumstances
- at the level at which they are currently achieving.
We might be wrong (the student might not have tried their hardest) but it is better to be wrong in that direction, than to risk being wrong in the other direction (to assume that the student has not tried their hardest, when in fact they have). Our experience shows that when assessors (markers) make this assumption it has a constructive effect on the tone of feedback that is offered, in particular with regards to the crucial component of ‘encouragement’. If, as an assessor, you believe the piece of work in front of you to be this student’s best effort, that has immediate consequences for how you frame your commentary on the work.
This principle applies to assessment on a grand scale – because often, as an assessor, you simply do not know the student whose work you are assessing (either because the work has been anonymised, or because it is from a large class). We’re not looking to regulate the nuances of relationships with students when we actually know them, when evidence about factors such as how hard someone has tried may realistically be known (for example, by a tutor in a tutorial or direct supervisory relationship with a student), and when it may then be appropriate to advise on matters such as ‘effort’.
The individual student
In order fully to work this idea through, one has to set it alongside other related values. ‘Individuals not cohorts’ is one such principle. Here we hold that, even in a large subject provision, our job is to remember that each piece of work comes from an individual student, who is currently navigating their own (probably complex) trajectory through life and through their course.
Associated with this is the principle that each individual trajectory through a course is to be equally valued, whether the path that is being followed is characterised by excellent achievement at the first class level, or a lower level of achievement in the third class range. Every one of our students is equally deserving of our time and of our encouragement.
When these ideas are taken on board by assessors it is nearly impossible to be anything other than encouraging in our commentary and feedback on a given student’s work. And encouragement can always be given without having to compromise on the honesty and authenticity of the things that we are prepared to say.
The value of values
When values are carefully articulated and collectively owned they inform and shape practice at a fundamental level – and we can draw important conclusions from this. We continue to resist, for example, pressures to adopt any ‘new and improved standard feedback form’, because focusing on the surface structure of procedures misdirects attention away from what really matters. Instead we insist that feedback to students must be consistent with our values, which are codified in a policy statement. The main principles of that statement are that feedback must aim to encourage and advise. We simply don’t care, within reason, what medium is used to enact that encouragement and advice.
And it pays dividends to think clearly about our values, and how they apply to us as well as our work. In learning and teaching we can benefit from reminding ourselves that “we are our students”. We all need to be valued as individuals, and not simply regarded as components of a cohort. We all need encouragement.
The workplace, and the world in general, become happier places if others, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, are prepared to make ‘the least dangerous assumption’ about the things that we do.