The Curse of Assessment-led Teaching

Yesterday I took part in a University Teaching and Learning Strategy meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better. It was an interesting meeting, involving academics, administrative staff and representatives of the Students Union, that generated quite a few useful ideas. Looking through my back catalogue I realise that around this time year I was at a similar event based in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex of which I am Head.

Positive though yesterday’s discussion was, it didn’t do anything to dissuade me from a long-held view that the entire education system holds back the students’ ability to learn by assessing them far too much. One part of the discussion was about trying to pin down essentially what is meant by “Research-led Teaching” which is what we’re supposed to be doing at universities. In my view too much teaching is not really led by research at all, but mainly driven by assessment. The combination of the introduction of modular programmes and the increase of continuously assessed coursework has led to a cycle of partial digestion and regurgitation that involves little in the way of real learning and certainly nothing like the way research is done.

I’m not going to argue for turning the clock back entirely, but for the record my undergraduate degree involved no continuous assessment at all (apart from a theory project I opted for in my final year. Having my entire degree result based on the results of six three-hour unseen examinations in the space of three days is not an arrangement I can defend, but note that despite the lack of continuous assessment I still spent less time in the examination hall than present-day students.

That’s not to say I didn’t have coursework. I did, but it was formative rather than summative; in other words it was for the student to learn about the subject, rather for the staff to learn about the student. I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.

People often tell me that if a piece of coursework “doesn’t count” then the students won’t do it. There is an element of truth in that, of course. But I had it drummed into me that the only way really to learn my subject (Physics) was by doing it. I did all the coursework I was given because I wanted to learn and I knew that was the only way to do it.

The very fact that coursework didn’t count for assessment made the feedback written on it all the more useful when it came back because if I’d done badly I could learn from my mistakes without losing marks. This also encouraged me to experiment a little, such as using a method different from that suggested in the question. That’s a dangerous strategy nowadays, as many seem to want to encourage students to behave like robots, but surely we should be encouraging students to exercise their creativity rather than simply follow the instructions? The other side of this is that more challenging assignments can be set, without worrying about what the average mark will be or what specific learning outcome they address.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the idea of Learning for Learning’s Sake, which is what in my view defines what a university should strive for, is getting lost in a wilderness of modules, metrics, percentages and degree classifications. We’re focussing too much on those few aspects of the educational experience that can be measured, ignoring the immeasurable benefit (and pleasure) that exists for all humans in exploring new ways to think about the world around us.

9 Responses to “The Curse of Assessment-led Teaching”

  1. See my longer comment on this post from a while back. I still think that is the way it should be done.

    In the excellent Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator describes an attempt to abolish marks while teaching a class. A student objected: “You can’t abolish the grades [marks]; that’s what we’re here for” which of course clearly illustrated his motive for wanting to abolish marks.

    There needs to be some mark associated with a degree, but the point is that the continued assessment encourages “studying for the test” as opposed to true learning.

  2. “I handed in my stuff every week, it was marked and annotated by a supervisor, then returned and discussed at a supervision.” If things were the same at Cambridge for both of us (me as a supervisor), the discussion was done in a group of two. Most universities can’t afford that level of supervision per student, but its a great system. Can it be extended to larger groups?

    Would you recommend a similar system of weekly problems, perhaps with the occasional assignment?

    • telescoper Says:

      My supervisions were usually in groups of 3-4 students. We have weekly tutorials here at Sussex usually in groups of 4 or 5.

      • A couple of years ago, Imperial Physics shifted from tutorials of 4 or 5 people to ‘small group teaching tutorials’ of about 20-24. I thought this was a huge retrograde step and have yet to be persuaded otherwise. The change was enforced from on high with no real room from debate because this was meant to ‘improve the student experience’ and, frankly, I think we were lied to about practices elsewhere since we were given the impression that tutorials could only be afforded by the likes of Oxbridge.

        I think the students prefer them as its easier to hide and not do work in a larger group, but it also has to be said the conventional tutorial experience depends a lot on the tutor, so they can be uneven.

      • telescoper Says:

        We had weekly tutorials when I was in Cardiff too. I don’t think this practice is at all unusual.

        I think that different students learn in different ways so ideally one should have a mixture of tutorials, exercise classes, lectures and office hours as well as giving students space in the department to study together – the value of peer learning shouldn’t be underestimated. The mix of these opportunities is better at Sussex than I’ve experienced anywhere else.

  3. […] “Yesterday I took part in a University Teaching and Learning Strategy meeting that discussed, among other things, how to improve the feedback on student assessments in order to help them learn better …” (more) […]

  4. Phil Uttley Says:

    One of my favourite book passages on education is related to this, from Ursula Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’:

    “He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater detriment to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problem in physics that interested them, and told them that he would give them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.

    “Well of course,” Shevek said, troubled. “If you do not want to do the work, you should not do it.” “

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