By Professor Gary Velan, UNSW Medicine & Health
Published 08 March 2023
For most students, assessment defines the curriculum (Ramsden, 2003) and has a major influence on their overall learning experience.
It is therefore of great concern that the most prevalent negative comments in myExperience course surveys continue to relate to assessment and feedback. One of the consequences of current assessment practice is an emphasis on marks and the competitive pursuit of higher grades, rather than collaboration and a focus on deep learning.
Timely, constructive feedback is critical for learning (Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Gibbs and Simpson, 2004). However, even if assessment marks are accompanied by descriptive feedback, students typically focus on their marks rather than utilising feedback to enhance their learning (Winstone and Boud, 2022).
Marks have thus become the primary currency of academic success, and in many cases the main source of feedback on students’ learning. I have coined the term ‘Marksism’ to describe this pernicious culture of assessment.
Unsurprisingly, this culture is detrimental to deep approaches to learning, as well as to students’ mental health and wellbeing (Schinske and Tanner, 2014). Moreover, focusing on assessment marks undermines learning and teaching by encouraging extrinsic (rather than intrinsic) motivation to learn, decreasing enjoyment of learning and increasing the fear of failure.
Shifting the focus of assessment away from marks requires institutional support, but begins at the level of individual courses and programs. Potential strategies include:
- designing authentic tasks that facilitate assessment for learning;
- utilising coarse grading based on standards, rather than a scale of 0 to 100;
- focusing on formative assessment with timely, actionable feedback;
- engaging students as partners in the assessment process, progressively developing the capability to evaluate their own work and that of others (e.g. student design of assessment rubrics, self and peer assessment) (Boud, 2010);
- programmatic assessment of the development of program learning outcomes utilising tools such as ePortfolios and student-facing dashboards;
- implementing ungraded courses (e.g. Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory grading for the first year of undergraduate programs).
This change will require a concerted effort, but moving toward a more authentic, developmental and inclusive culture of assessment is likely to reduce the overall negative impact of assessment on staff and students and to enhance students’ overall learning experience.
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Boud, D. and Associates (2010). Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from www.assessmentfutures.com
Gibbs, G, Simpson, C (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and teaching in higher education, 1: 3-31, https://eprints.glos.ac.uk/3609/
Hattie J, Timperley H (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1):81-112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487
Ramsden, P (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203507711
Schinske J, Tanner K (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(2):159-166. doi:10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054, https://www.lifescied.org/doi/10.1187/cbe.cbe-14-03-0054
Winstone, N.E, Boud, D (2022). The need to disentangle assessment and feedback in higher education, Studies in Higher Education, 47:3, 656-667, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1779687
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