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Let’s value excellent assessment too!

Sally Brown proposes that assessment needs to feature much more prominently in the TEF.
This article is more than 5 years old

Professor Sally Brown is an independent consultant in learning, teaching and assessment, and Emerita Professor at Leeds Beckett University

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) isn’t great at assessing excellent teaching. It instead assesses proxies that relate more closely to the advantage students bring with them to university. It also does not measure the extra added value brought about by their teaching.

This is patently unfair and needs to be challenged, as many are doing in relation to recommendations that the Augar review proposes on the topic. There are glaring anomalies in the metrics, including the failure to value training to teach (for example, with post graduate higher education teaching qualifications and post graduate certificates in academic practice), the absence of achieving recognition for teaching, as well as excellence in individual and team teaching. In addition to these gaps, the issue of taking no account of the quality of assessment in TEF is foolish.

Without assessment, how can we teach?

Assessment and feedback are arguably the most important loci of student engagement with those who teach them and for this reason, good assessment design is crucial. Assessment can impact positively or negatively on student engagement, retention, satisfaction and achievement, so we need to make sure our assessment works well for students and that effective practice is recognised.

It is a high stakes activity for students, since their whole success depends on effective navigation of the assessment labyrinth. Grace and Gravestock (2008) argue:

“Assessment is likely to be the most daunting aspect of [students’] academic experience at university. Problems with managing workloads, poor lectures, having to give seminar papers and so on can all cause anxiety, but the issues relating to assessment often relate to their fears for the ultimate performance and final results and … future careers”.

The devising and delivering of effective feedback is also an area which could usefully demonstrate a commitment to excellent teaching practice, but international scholars Carless and Boud (2018) recognise that it often fails to be fit-for-purpose.

“There is also a wide range of evidence from the National Student Survey in England and Wales (Higher Education Funding Council for England 2016) and the Student Experience Survey in Australia (Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching 2017) that students are not particularly satisfied with feedback and the broader assessment regimes within which feedback is commonly organised”.

Assessing the assessment

So what kinds of metrics could we use within an improved TEF framework, which could recognise excellence in this crucial area? More or less all PGCerts and PGCAPs inevitably induct new colleagues into good assessment and feedback practices, but any metric needs to include continuing professional development for old hands as well as new colleagues, together with information from those who set and implement policy. The involvement of those shaping policy is important as it demonstrates that their goals align with sound evidence and that their assessment regulations are both sensible in design and strenuously applied in practice.

I propose the inclusion of a narrative that sets out the principles by which institutions and subject groups manage, deliver, evaluate and moderate assessment and feedback in their institutions.

By doing so, they will able to assure reliability, validity, authenticity, fairness, inclusivity, consistency of marks including inter alia exam arrangements, and arrangements to detect and prevent poor academic conduct.

Within that narrative, the following data could be included:

  • The proportion of full-time and part-time staff who had undertaken training/CPD specifically on assessment/feedback in that year;
  • The proportion of full-time staff who contribute to academic citizenship through external examinership, plus the proportion of full-time staff who are trained to act as exam board chairs;
  • How recently an institution’s assessment regulations framework had been overhauled and updated, with annotations as to the rationale for their change;
  • Evidence to a commitment to scholarship in the field of assessment and feedback including for example a list of journal articles, books and other publications and national/international projects around assessment and feedback, demonstrating a university profile that recognises individual and collective expertise; book chapters, journal articles;
  • The number of staff engaging in contributing to national debates on assessment/ feedback through their professional, subject and regulatory bodies, national organisations like AdvanceHE and Wonkhe, and other more-specialist groups including the student assessment and classification working group (SACWG) and the UK assessment in higher education conference group.

All of this data is likely to be readily available within universities and has the potential to build a rich picture for prospective students, parents, employers and the public.

2 responses to “Let’s value excellent assessment too!

  1. Interesting piece and a great case for the vital importance of assessment & feedback in HE learning – indeed why it is *the* most important thing in HE learning (and arguably the area where the sector most often falls short).

    However, in order to implement want is suggested one would have to step back and change what is at present a fundamental principle of TEF: that it assesses outcomes, not inputs or processes. Back when TEF was first imagined there was a very strong policy and pedagogical case for TEF incorporating process/input measures like the ones cited in the article. But the sector very quickly secured a government commitment to only measuring outcomes – this was on the basis of a) academic freedom, b) recognising diversity of provision and c) process measures could be easy to game. Maybe this decision could be revisited, but I’d suspect that critics of TEF would take even greater objection to process-proxies than the outcome-proxies currently devised, as they did when the government considered introducing the ‘teaching intensity’ metric.

    In which case, the TEF already has scope to cover a lot of things suggested in the piece. The NSS section on A&F is a core metric (it should be weighted much more strongly than it is currently though), and provider and subject submissions give the opportunity to speak to the issues raised in the article. Perhaps that could be more explicitly sought in guidance perhaps, given how essential A&F is to improving HE teaching and the student learning experience?

  2. Interesting piece, thank you! Might not these data risk an ‘arms race’ for these measurements though – staff taking on external examining/being required to training for the sake of the metrics, rather than the best reasons?

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