An innovation to this year’s Learning Development Centre Showcase event was to open with a debate. The suggestion to hold a debate came from the Associate Deans for Education and the theme was chosen to reflect the focus of the LDC’s work for this year on Assessment and Feedback, which will also form the focus of our Learning Development Conference to be held on 13th June. The topic chosen was ‘Assessment practice in Higher education relies largely on a limited range of methods that are not always fit for purpose’. Proposing the motion was Nigel Duncan, Professor of Legal Education at the City Law School and academic lead for assessment across City University London. Bravely taking up the opposing side was Dr Chris Wiley, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate programmes in the Centre for Music Studies. A mixed audience of academic and professional staff and students was in attendance.
Professor Duncan opened the debate with a forensic dissection of the motion, noting that he had to persuade the audience that the words ‘largely’ and ‘not always’ were key to his argument that the motion was an accurate analysis of the state of assessment across the Higher Education sector in the UK, and that this applied to assessment practices at City University London, although comparison with assessment practices across the sector shows that City has greater diversity than the average. Research into the range of assessments recorded on the Programme and module specifications held on PRISM, the university’s repository for this information, revealed that of the assessments logged on the system more than half were traditional written assessments, out of 8069 assessments, 2204 are written exams and 4302 are written assignments. 2269 modules are recorded as having only 1 assessment. In Professor Duncan’s view this lack of variety indicates that our assessment practices shows that too much of current practice is assessment of learning, rather than assessment for learning, and this demonstrates that the motion is an accurate description of the status of assessment in the sector generally.
Doctor Wiley began his response by recognising that his was the more difficult task since assessment is never popular, especially with students! Nevertheless he rose to the task, pointing out that, as City University London has a particular focus on business and the professions, many assessment practices are externally mandated by professional accrediting bodies, giving module leaders relatively little discretion as to the timing and kinds of assessment which are available to them. Moreover there were questions about the accuracy of the assessment profile recorded in PRISM and that the figures quoted by Professor Duncan may in fact conceal much greater diversity in practice. Additionally the predominance of written assessments did not necessarily imply a uniformity of essays as the major type of assessment; this could also encompass reports, projects, briefs and many others. In Dr Wiley’s view the problem may lie more in the lack of alignment of learning outcomes with assessment, and improving the alignment between these aspects is where the focus should be. Also he felt that lecturers should offer more support to their students in understanding and avoiding plagiarism, since this is one area where students frequently err. Developing skills in this aspect of academic practice would perhaps help reduce the anxiety many students experience when faced with ‘traditional’ forms of assessment.
Both speakers then had an opportunity to respond to the points made by their opponent and then the audience was invited to make comments and question the speakers. A number of student contributors expressed their dissatisfaction with their current assessments, yet recognised the role of external bodies in often determining how assessments were designed. Following a lively discussion an anonymous vote was held using the Personal Response System, and the motion was carried by a 2:1 majority.
Feedback collected on the day and subsequently demonstrates the popularity of the debate as a worthwhile innovation to the Showcase, and it is one we will repeat in future.