Part 2 – Assessing learning

2014-05-30 12.25.08This is the second in my series of three posts looking at assessing intelligence, learning and aptitude. In the first post in the series, we looked at the role of intelligence testing in education, which is trying to work out the inherent capability of an individual. This post will talk about how we assess an individual’s educational progress.

When choosing an assessment technique, teachers, lecturers and trainers consider a range of criteria. These might include the potential purpose – for example formative assessment (which would involve comments on work) or summative assessment (which would involve an examination and final mark of some kind). These are also often referred to as assessment for learning and assessment of learning. We might bear in mind the potential use, such as helping pupils to improve literacy or numeracy skills; internal tracking of progress; communicating amongst teaching team members; overall monitoring of internal standards; or overall monitoring of national standards. When creating assessment processes, we also have to think about the type of task. You will be familiar with lots of these, I imagine, but a short list of the most common ones might include essays; embedded tasks created by teachers and lecturers (online discussion forums, for example); presentations; projects; performances and demonstrations. In addition to all that, we need to consider the agent of judgement in relation to the inspection – in other words, whether the assessor is likely to be a teacher/lecturer, or a student/pupil in a form of peer assessment. For the assessment to be reliable, we need to pay attention to the basis for our judgements. The assessment might be norm referenced (in which percentage bands  get a certain classification, as in the case of O’Level exams) or criterion referenced (assessment whereby if you meet all the criteria, you automatically get 100%, as in the case of GCSE examinations). We might even create an assessment that is student referenced (what we might call ipsative). The form of feedback or report will also play a part in our development. This may involve a mark or score; a profile of achievement against published criteria; a statement of the overall grade achieved; a comment or piece of oral feedback; or most frightening of all, rank order.

Even though a lot of thought will have gone into the design of an assessment process or practice, there are always going to be problems arising. These include:

  • Lecturer/teacher reliability – How similarly do people mark?
  • Degree of task specification – How do we know if an answer conforms to what is expected?
  • Subject differences – Why can you get 100% in a mathematics paper but not in a philosophy one?
  • Assessor bias – If the teacher or examiner knows who has submitted the essay, does this mean they will be biased? Should examinations be anonymous?
  • Quality assurance measures – How systematic is the marking? How consistent from year to year?
  • Variation in moderation approach – How is quality assured?

Some methods of quality assurance include:

    • A statistical comparison – For example some exam boards track mode, median and mean scores throughout the year for all activities
    • An inspection of samples – Universities collect samples from the top, middle and bottom of the mark range, and double mark them. We also show this to the external examiner.
    • External examining – Universities rely heavily on external examiners, who check procedures and also advise us on continuous improvement possibilities.
    • Group moderation of grades – Used in some schools, usually internally.
    • Defining criteria – Exam boards provide a pro forma marking scheme so everyone knows what is expected in terms of projects and assignments.
    • Exemplification – Many educational institutions keep sample essays and answers for markers to refer to.
    • Accreditation – Many courses have to comply with external criteria, for example accredited psychology courses.
    • Verifier visits – This applies when organisations need to involve a third party, such as a professional or governmental body.
    • Group moderation of process – Some universities and examination boards may bear this in mind.

Ultimately it is impossible to have an education system without various forms of assessment taking place at various times. Some of these assessment systems will be used to support and encourage learning, and others will be used to triage pupils or students into different ability and achievement groups. What is important is that we are thoughtful about what we are trying to do, and why.


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