Over-assessing

It’s that time of year when the first main bulk of assessments are happening and as always this throws up some interesting practices.

First, exams were last week. But for many students they have only just handed in their first big assessment, so are going into an exam without any real feedback. This unfortunately is a product of the Semesterisation of the curriculum. I won’t go into how pedagogically inappropriate it is to compartmentalise all aspects of a course into equally weighted credit blocks, that’s a blog in it’s own right. But for you to assess anything of any serious weight, you need to have taught enough of the course before you can assess students. So if your subject requires a student to demonstrate some deep knowledge and understanding then small-scale continuous assessment is probably inappropriate and you’re going to have to assess through a project or essay. But for me, it is wrong that students go into their exams without any idea feedback from their tutors.

But this isn’t the reason for this blog, it’s about two aspects that are included in almost all essay marking criteria I feel are disproportionately assessed on undergraduate degrees, presentation and referencing.

As an employer, we believe that when we see a recent graduate’s degree result we are seeing a grade that presents their understanding of their course. However, for many undergraduate degrees around 5% of their degree will have been the assessment of their ability to correctly reference sources in a format that’s of no use to most outside of academia. If you are a researcher publishing to journals, you have to publish in the format they tell you. If you’re a business, as long as the source is identifiable you don’t care. It also creates a odd mentality in staff. If it cannot be referenced under whatever archaic format you’re told to use, then it can’t be used.

I’ve sat in countless meetings with academics talking about how items such as web pages and online video can be referenced. Usually they come to the conclusion that since these sources aren’t ‘really published’ they shouldn’t accept them anyway. Which is odd, because we all (lecturers included) regularly trust web content. But worryingly it’s also limiting creativity. At junior schools pupils are producing much more interesting documents, including videos and animations. In some schools pupils are already allowed to submit submissions in whatever format they want such a videos. Unfortunately, referencing reinforces one dimensional assessment practices. Don’t get me wrong. Some Universities have done away with the idea that the assessed piece of work is simply an essay and have given their students the freedom to submit any type of media through which they can demonstrate the understanding of a subject. But the majority of academics haven’t.

So why is something so unimportant to employers assessed in every assessment?

The second aspect that’s over assessed is report presentation. Now, let’s make this point perfectly clear. The majority of academics do not present good material. Their Powerpoint presentations and Word documents are hardly examples of good practice. Yet for every essay, they’re marking students on their ability to lay out clear content. Sometimes the presentation criteria will also cover punctuation and spelling, which is something that needs to be assessed. But many academics, like me, are the product of the 1970s where spelling and grammar wasn’t really taught and therefore many aren’t in a position to assess it. They’re hardly domain expects in this area. (They also tend not to offer any real assistance to students to improve their ability)

We’ve just dealt with a case of a student submitting a document in Word 2013 and the layout engine of Word 2010 displayed the document differently and they were penalised over presentation. That’s how ridiculous it’s become. Assessing students ability to lay out documents in a format that isn’t even fixed.

Now I’m not saying that both of these aren’t important. The ability to select appropriate sources is clearly important. Producing clear reports is important. But when important domain knowledge is often assessed once and not re-assessed to help students demonstrate any improvement, (another poor pedagogical approach adopted far too often), why do we assess these too aspects so often? Is presentation and referencing THAT important?

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