How can practice reshape assessment?

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Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education, 2009, pp. 29 - 43
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Assessment in higher education is being challenged by a multiplicity of demands. The activities predominantly used-examinations, assignments and other kinds of tests-have emerged fromwithin an educational tradition lightly influenced by ideas from psychological measurement, but mostly influenced by longstanding cultural practices in the academic disciplines. Assessment in higher education has for a long time been a process influenced more from within the university rather than externally. It has typically been judged in terms of how well it meets the needs of educational institutions for selection and allocation of places in later courses or research study, and whether it satisfies the expectations of the almost totally exclusive academic membership of examination committees. Within courses, it has been judged by how well it meets the needs of those teaching. In more recent times it is judged in terms of how well it addresses the learning outcomes for a course. When we think of assessment as a feature of educational programs and construct it as part of the world of teaching and courses, our points of reference are other courses and assessment that occurs to measure knowledge acquired. Assessment is positioned as part of a world of evaluating individuals in an educational system separated from engagement in the everyday challenges of work. In contrast, in the everyday world of work, assessments are an intrinsic part of dealing with the challenges that any form of work generates. When we learn through our lives, we necessarily engage in assessment. We make judgements about what needs to be done and whether we have done it effectively. While we may do this individually, we also do it with colleagues and others in the situations in which we find ourselves. This occurs in a social context, not in isolation from others. We also make judgements about situations and groups, not just about individuals, and when we make judgements about individuals we do so in a very particular context. Judgements are typically validated as part of a community of practice. Indeed, the community of judgement defines what constitutes good work. Given the increasing focus on a learning outcomes-oriented approach to education, it is useful to examine assessment from a perspective outside the immediate educational enterprise. How can it be deployed to meet the ends rather than the means of education? How can it address the needs of continuing learning? Such a focus on what graduates do when they practise after they complete their courses can enable us to look afresh at assessment within educational institutions to ensure that it is not undermined by short-term and local needs (Boud & Falchikov, 2006). This focus can be gained from looking at practice in the world for which graduates are being prepared. This chapter investigates how an emphasis on practice might be used to examine assessment within higher education. Practice is taken pragmatically here as representing what students and graduates do when they exercise their knowledge, skills and dispositions with respect to problems and issues in the world. For some, this will mean acting as a professional practitioner and engaging in practice with a client or customer, for others it will be the practice of problem analysis and situation improvement in any work or non-work context. Acts of practice are many and varied. It is the intention here to use the perspective that they provide to question how students are prepared for practice, particularly with respect to how assessment operates to enhance and inhibit students' capacity to engage effectively in practice. However, practice is not an unproblematic concept and what constitutes practice is not self-evident. The chapter therefore starts with an examination of practice and how it is used. It draws in this on theoretical notions of practice that are influencing the literature now. We then move from practice to examine some of the ideas emerging about assessment in higher education that can be linked to this. These include a focus on assessment for learning, the role of the learner and the need to take account of preparing for learning beyond graduation. The argument highlights a view of assessment as informing judgements in contrast to a view of assessment as measuring learning outcomes. Implications for the ways in which assessment priorities in higher education can be reframed are considered throughout.
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