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‘...if we wish to discover the truth about an educational system we must look at its assessment procedures.’

Rowntree(1987)

Policy

Assessment is driving force within most formal educational systems. It defines for students what is important, it determines how they spend their study time and it directly affects the way they interact with their teachers. Boud notes that while 'students can, with difficulty, escape from the effects of poor teaching, they cannot escape the effects of poor assessment' (Boud, 1995: 35). 

How assessment processes are organised in modules and courses is determined both by university policies and procedures and by local practices deriving from the disciplinary and departmental cultures. If one wishes to enhance assessment and feedback practices across an institution it is important that top-down policies and procedures are aligned and support bottom-up innovations.

A Change Strategy

Nicol and Draper (2009) have outlined a strategic approach to transformational change using assessment as a driver. This paper drew on experiences with the REAP project but it has much wider relevance.  The key argument in the paper is that institutional change requires work at two levels. First, there is a need to develop a set of rhetorical resources (i.e. communicative messages) that would bring a range of different stakeholders on board (senior manangers, academics in departments, students, quality assurance managers). Second, there must be a good implementation plan that will evidence real benefits from changes that are made in modules and courses so that the changes spread across the institution.  This section deals with the rhetorical resources. 

Rhetorical Resources 

The success of any change initiative across a whole institution requires repeated acts of persuasion with regard to a range of stakeholders. It is therefore essential to develop a way of presenting the messages behind the proposed change initiative in a convincing way that will ensure buy-in.  In REAP the following were important.

  • a problem domain that everyone saw as worth spending effort on: assessment and feedback are appropriate here as everyone feels there are bottlenecks (e.g workload, use of feedback) worth addressing 
  • a deep and worthwhile educational aspiration: in REAP the big aspiration was the development of learner self-regulation, a stated goal in many institutional strategies but rarely stated how it might be developed.
  • a set of educational principles that if implemented would help realise the aspiration and address the problem domain: an example here is the assessment and feedback principles guiding the REAP project (the way these principles are written is crucial)
  • a set of practical examples of the application of the principles across a range of disciplinary contexts; this shows that it can be done 'in my discipline'
  • back-up educational research that validates the aspiration and that provides robust evidence that the application of the principles will result in real learning and/or efficiency benefits

These conceptual resources must be developed before the strategic initiative begins. They serve as entry points to the ideas behind the initiative and their articulation will help persuade stakeholders that it is worth participating in the proposed changes. Different stakeholders will focus on different aspects of the 'message' but taken together these resources will provide a complete package that will enable everyone to understand the nature of the proposed changes, whatever their starting perspective.  How these rhetorical resources were used in the REAP intitiative is explained in Nicol and Draper (2009).  However it is important to note here that the assessment and feedback principles were a core component of the package. The principles summarise the educational research, they provide a common agenda for implementation plans, they can be used to support an evaluation of the change and they provide a common language for discussing change over time. Such principles must be embedded in an educational strategy for maximum effect and students must also be engaged with them.  When part of an educational strategy they can also be further reinforced through quality assurance or enhancement processes.