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Assessment for learning

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The search for authentic assessment

Challenges to traditional assessment have been particularly strong in the UK, which has seen accusations of lowering standards and dumbing down of higher education. Recently, a 551-page dossier concerning standards was submitted to a committee of Members of Parliament, which included allegations from Alan Ryan, warden of New College Oxford, that any reasonably well-organized student could get a 2:1 (Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills Committee, 2009).

One of the submissions from this document was from the Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange (ASKe), a centre of excellence for teaching and learning based at Oxford Brookes. ASKe called for a "root and branch" change in assessment processes and practices, and argued that there were fundamental flaws in the current system, at both macro (degree) and micro levels (the assessment of individual students).

A number of other projects have sprung up to look at assessment. Re-engineering Assessment Practices in Scottish Higher Education (REAP) was put together with the specific objective of redesigning large first-year courses around more formative assessment and feedback: see It was funded from 2005-2007 and comprised three partners, the universities of Strathclyde, Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian, which transformed 19 modules across a range of disciplines. Results have shown not only improved learning, but also staff-efficiency gains.

The ESCAPE Project (Effecting Sustainable Change in Assessment Practice and Experience), is funded from 2009-2010, and is based at the University of Hertfordshire. Drawing on expertise from the University of Hertfordshire's Blended Learning Unit, it looks at ways in which information and communications technology can help assessment.

All these initiatives are looking at ways of supporting learning in a more authentic manner. Authentic assessment should promote active and deep learning. Deep learning seeks to understand and relate to other knowledge and experience, as opposed to shallow learning which concentrates on memorizing and verbatim regurgitation.

The various types of learning have been analysed into taxonomies: academic education seeks to achieve those at higher levels.

The Teaching and Educational Development Institute (TEDI) at the University of Queensland quote Bloom's taxonomies:

  • Knowledge (recall and recognition of facts).
  • Comprehension (restate, review, identify etc.).
  • Application (apply, interpret, solve, illustrate).
  • Analysis (analyse, compare, contrast, distinguish).
  • Synthesis (compose, design, synthesize).
  • Evaluation (assess, judge, predict).

As well as Biggs' taxonomy of learning outcomes, Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO):

  • Prestructural (the task has not been understood).
  • Unistructural (only one aspect of the task tackled).
  • Multistructural (several aspects of the task are tackled, but are treated independently).
  • Relational (the topic is understood adequately, and the different aspects treated as a coherent whole).
  • Extended abstract (not only is the topic and its components understood, but the learner is able to move to a level of abstraction and apply to a new topic).

Source: see Isaacs (2001).