Making assessment relevant

Insert metaphor here

Reading Martin’s post yesterday, just as I’m finishing my duties as an external examiner, makes me think about assessment formats.

Too often, we fall into the essay-and-exam approach: it’s simple, and easy and hardly anyone questions it. Of course, as the institution I external at is about to find out, I’m one of the people who does question it.

Assessment has a terrible reputation to deal with: in essence, it’s a hassle to do as a student, a hassle to set and mark as an instructor and the source of more academic complaints than anything else. No-one has a good word to say about it, it seems.

In our hearts, we know that it matters and that there has to be some kind of means of evaluating student performance, for their sakes and ours. But surely there’s a better way of doing it.

Here I will annoy you by saying that there’s no silver bullet on this one: if there was, we’d all be doing it like a shot.

However, with a bit of thought we can address some of the issues surrounding assessment.

The starting point has to be alignment: make the assessment fit the rest of your teaching. Martin’s suggestion is much like one I use for my class on European Union policy-making, where I ask students to identify a problem in a policy area, suggest a remedy and produce a briefing paper on it, which I then mark. Students thus get an applied sense of how things work in practice and – more importantly – why they also don’t work: it’s easy to criticise, much harder to find better alternatives.

In a subject like Politics, there’s huge potential to recast assessment into different formats that fit alongside real-world counterparts. Indeed, the value placed in the real-world on brevity works to our advantage, but suggesting that it is not the length of the work that counts, but the quality: shorter pieces are arguably harder than long ones precisely because they call for incisiveness. Similarly, the rise of blogging as a more credible arena for political debate [cough] means that register issues can also be handled with more flexibility.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we lose all essays and exams. Instead, it’s a matter of reflecting on whether that’s always the most useful format to use. Variety gives students a broader experience and potentially raises their engagement as they try to figure out how best to tackle each type. I’ll also say that it makes marking much more interesting to do.

The central point here is simply one of applying some reflection to assessment as we do to other bits of our learning & teaching environment. Don’t make it an add-on, but a core part of what you do. It might be a drag, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.