Getting more for less?

You gets what you pays for...

The Higher Education Academy has launched a seminar series with a strand on "getting more for less" in its upcoming Assessment and Feedback series. "Getting more for less" is quite a catchy title in a Higher Education system beginning to experience some serious slashing and burning. There is a part of me that doesn't wish to collude with this slightly desperate form of realpolitik – it seems pragmatic and opportunist rather than principled. It's a bit like being seduced by the " buy one get one free" offers of crisps or chocolate at your local supermarket, when you know its an inducement to indigestion, spots and middle age spread. "You gets what you pays for" is an enduring life principle in our consumer conscious, vfm society. When I was growing up, vfm would probably have been an unusual bandwidth on the wireless.

Wasted time and effort

In spite of these reservations, I find myself uncomfortably preparing a bid to host one of these seminars on "getting more for less in assessment and feedback". "Why?" you might ask. There are two reasons: the first is the clarity which TESTA findings bring to the unpalatable truth that academics waste an enormous amount of time and effort carefully crafting written feedback which isn't valued, read or used by students. In one TESTA case study, lecturers were writing an average of 500 words on every script or equivalent, to which students unilaterally gave the thumbs down. Why? It came too late to be useful, after the proverbial modular horse had bolted, and it was caught within the transmission model of education – experts pronounced and students passively received the words, without a 'reply to' button.

Modular identities

The second reason that I'm keen we take up the "more with less" mantra is more fundamental. TESTA shows again and again that the modular system, with its handmaiden of quality assurance, has generated a plethora of summative assessments on most modern degree programmes – an average of 47 in the TESTA study, marked, moderated, and externalled. It has set the end-game of a module and a degree in Arabic numerals, pinning student identity to a number: "I'm about a 52", as if ability and intellect were immutable.

High risk for low learning

The tragedy is that more summative assessment has led to less learning, because the burden and weight of all the procedural elements of summative assessment have drowned out formative assessment, the poor relation of its worthier cousin, the percentage point. In formative assessment, students practise and receive feedback; they engage in learning on the journey towards the goal of becoming a historian, a lawyer, a psychologist, or even the more instrumental goal of preparing for a good summative assessment, without the risk and constant hovering presence of a mark.

And the converse - low risk and more learning

The TESTA findings speak volumes about "getting more for less" if this means getting more learning for less summative assessment; doing more formative assessment and feedback on the journey through modules; and finding creative ways to get students to do more – more self assessment; more peer review; more dialogue with feedback, and more identifying of what areas of their learning need the focus and attention of a professional eye before they see for themselves how to master aspects of their discipline through interaction with practice, feedback and the intellectual community at the heart of university life.

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Monday, 20 November 2017