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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 37, No 21. August 28, 1974

Assessment Assessed

page 3

Assessment Assessed

Image of a mans eyes seen through a magnifying glass

Two weeks Ago the men who run New Zealand's universities met in Auckland for the Conference of New Zealand Universities. For the most part it was a pretty complacent gathering — plenty of socialising and scant attention to the problems confronting students and staff.

One resolution passed by the conference requested the universities to promote discussion and research on the use of assessment and moderation procedures in the universities and the secondary school system. Moving the resolution Graeme Clarke, Education Vice-President of NZUSA, said:

"In calling for research and discussion as a student I am only too aware of what a lack of thought has meant in the past. As an ordinary student I was one of the many that pushed for in-term assessment. What I meant by this was that for an end of year grade I would get the average of marks that I got during the year for my essays and pracs, etc. Consequently I would have received a higher grade than the one I got from the exam for the same amount of work.

"But when this monster in-term assessment was introduced it didn't work like that at all. It meant more work, more pressure and the same grades as before. This has been borne out by faculty and welfare services reports on the subject at Victoria University."

The university "heavies" didn't try to dispute what Clarke had said. In fact Victoria University's Pro-Chancellor, K.B. O'Brien, agreed that reports on in-term assessment at Victoria had provided grounds for serious concern about in-term assessment.

If the university bosses are serious about promoting discussion on the use of assessment they will publish the faculty and welfare services reports Graeme Clarke referred to, and make them available to students.

But on the off chance that the university won't come up with anything for students to discuss, some details of the criticisms of in-term assessment have been published in a recent study on different methods of assessment by NZUSA's Education Department.

In a pamphlet published by NZUSA in 1971 an English educationalist, Michael Bassey, who was a supporter of in-term assessment, made the following warning.

"In formal assignment assessment (i.e. in-term assessment) it is imperative that a student's motivation is interest in his work alone, for if his motivation were to be the need to get a successful mark for every assignment, we would be replacing torture at the end of the course by three years of regular torture!"

While a number of staff members and students claim that student workloads have not increased as a result of the widespread use of in-term assessment, there is evidence that students are experiencing difficulties with their workloads, which suggests that workloads have increased.

In a report to the Professorial Board this year a subcommittee of the Science Faculty noted that while staff opinion on whether or not student workloads had increased was very mixed, it was "notable that nobody has ventured to suggest that it has decreased". The Law Faculty reported to the Professorial Board that it had re-examined its workloads in consultation with Professor Clift of the University Teaching and Research Centre, and the Law Students Executive, and as a result there had been a reduction in the number of assignments set for the coming year which, in conjunction with the preparation of a fixed timetable for assignments and the modification of the in-term assessing programme was expected to reduce the pressure of work for law students.

The Commerce Faculty's committee on assessment and workloads found that about 21% of students surveyed could not adequately cope with course workloads and that nearly 24% could not adequately cope with total workloads.

Although there is still debate about whether workloads have increased or not as a result of the introduction of in-term assessment there seems to be general agreement that the pressure on students has been spread throughout the academic year and that it has probably increased.

The Faculty of Commerce committee noted in its report: "Under in-term assessment many assignments which previously counted only towards terms now contribute toward the final grade. These assignments consequently now demand more attention from students. It seems likely therefore that even if the total number of assignments has not increased the pressure involved in completing these assignments has risen. The result is that 'students feel under continuous trial in everything they do'. The problem is further compounded if, as in this faculty, the duration and coverage of final examinations has generally remained unchanged. Lengthy final examinations mean that the pressure on students at examinations time is still considerable despite the fact that most examinations now contribute less to total assessment than formerly."

One particularly burdensome aspect[unclear: ed] of this increase in pressure on students is that the pressure on them is uneven. According to the university's welfare services many students have complained that their workloads are unevenly spread during the year and that there is poor co-ordination within departments and between departments. Fifty percent of students surveyed by the Commerce Faculty committee stated that their total workloads were either poorly or very poorly spread.

In an attempt to overcome this problem the Welfare Services and the faculties of science, commerce and law have come up with proposals for planning and coordination of assignments by staff and the provision of full information to students about the number and dates of assignments early in their courses. Such reforms may reduce the problem of uneven workloads, but will they reduce the student's total workload?

Another problem created by the use of in-term assessment has been that students have tended to neglect unassessed work in favour of assessed work. According to the Commerce Faculty committee the consequences of this are to encourage staff to increase the number of assessed pieces of work in a paper, with the result that workloads generally are increased.

The use of in-term assessment has brought about several other problems for students and staff. These include:
a)fragmentation of courses so that "some students feel they have to switch from one topic to another unrelated one before they have understood the first or explore it as deeply as they would like" (Director of Student Welfare Service);
b)inconsistency of marking between various tutors in the same subject;
c)increased pressure on staff. One department in the science faculty commented that "far from reducing examination anxiety (in-term assessment) has tended to spread throughout the course of these year. Furthermore, it has emphasised the role of teachers as examiners rather than teachers, and this change is regretted. It may not be long before "pressure arises from staff and students to return to the situation that prevailed three or four years ago when final exams were the key factor in assessment procedures, and students were free to make their mistakes and errors and share their ignorance in a healthier educational milieu than that which obtains at present.

Finally there is a lot of discussion about whether in-term assessment has had an effect on student's extra-curricular activities. In a memorandum to Deans on Faculties in August last year the Director of Student Welfare Services, Mr Ian Boyd, noted: "The impression of the Welfare and Union staff is that this year and last year there had been reduction in the time students have been prepared to make available to extracurricular activities." Mr Boyd went on to say: "During our most recent discussion, a Warden of a hall of residence referred to 'the strange new malaise about the university this year'. The VUWSA Student Welfare Officer commented that 'students feel deadened by assessment and other academic requirements.'"

In July last year the Professorial Board asked faculties to consider assertions "that the work programmes being required of students by present courses and methods of assessment have become unduly onerous and destructive of both effective learning and joy in university life." The Science Faculty reported mixed feelings among staff about whether students have 'less joy in their university life than formerly'. However some staff members did believe that this was true and that it was somehow related to the fact that students feel themselves continually under the pressure of being assessed. To its discredit the Commerce Faculty made no comment on this matter.

(Next week "Salient" will look at proposals for reforming the present system of in-term assessment, and ways in which students can start working for change.)