Talking Teaching

August 12, 2010

Some thoughts on assessment

Filed under: Uncategorized — Marcus Wilson @ 10:16 am

This is a copy of a post I put last week on my home blog PhysicsStop

I went to a very interesting seminar this morning [5 August]. Phil Race, from the UK, was presenting about making assessments better in tertiary teaching. There was a lot in his talk (you can download it and other information from ) – I’ll just summarise some of the points that are most interesting to me.

1. Assessment started going downhill when, in 1791, the University of Cambridge introduced the first written exam. (Before that, it was purely oral).  Not sure that this is ever likely to change – but I can certainly say that in my experience students seem to appreciate feedback a lot more when it is given in person.

2. Don’t put a mark or grade on a student’s assignment when you return it to them. The student will become focused on the grade, to the point of ignoring all your written feedback.

3. Instead, let them work out what their grade should be, based on the feedback you give and how their work compares to that of their peers. I tried this out very briefly this afternoon in a lab class. I normally mark student lab reports by spending a few minutes the following week with the student and going through their report together (see point 1). Today I asked my poor unsuspecting students what mark they reckoned they should get.   All but one was spot-on – their assessment was the same as mine. The other one was harsh on himself – I thought his work was of better quality than he did, and I was able to explain why.

4. Never ask a student ‘Do you understand?’ This is likely to trigger the following train of thought:

What is it he wants me to understand? What if I don’t understand it? Will he think I’m stupid? Will my friends think I’m stupid? Will he ask me more awkward questions? How much do I have to understand? Is it a hint that this will be in the exam? etc. etc.

So the student answers …. Hmmm… I’m not sure…which gets no-one anywhere.

And 5. There is so much literature about what works and doesn’t work with assessment that there shouldn’t be any excuse for carrying on with the same methods that we know aren’t much good. Just go and do what works.   As the Oracle of Delphi is supposed to have said “You know what the problem is… you know what the solution is…. now go and do it”


  1. Interesting thoughts. I think the last one is unrealistic though. We are expected to do public outreach, administrative committees, be highly productive researchers, mentor students, and are expected to be up to date on all the educational research literature as well, especially given how contradictory much of it is? It is hard enough keeping up with a very narrow field of research, much less keeping up with multiple fields as well. This is especially unrealistic with the administrations making our tenure and promotions solely based on how much grant muney we bring in.. My school, like many others, has tied a portion of our salaries to the grants we bring in. Not only do we not get raises, but to simply keep our current salaries we are required to have grants that pay some of our salary. We get absolutely no financial incentive to pay any attention to our teaching and a good incentive to actively ignore it. In short, we can not be expected to read all the educational research literature.

    In a related note, I recently attended a teaching with technology symposiom. Every time I asked a speaker if they had any evidence that their technique or new technological innovation actually raised scores, I got no answerother than “it keeps the students engaged.” I could not get any of them to understand that keeping them engaged and entertained is worthless if you aren’t teaching at the same time. The only thing our administrations care about is does it increase student scores. if it doesn’t, then it is a waste of our time as far as the adminstration is concerned.

    Until the administrations actually support quality teaching with financial incentives or even just stop punishing people for spending too much time teaching, many of these ideas and techniques, as good and useful as they may be, are simply not going to be feasible as they take more time then the simple lecture and test routine. We all know it is not the best way to teach by a long shot, but it is relatively quick and easy, allowing us to spend the time on what the administration actually cares about. And man do I sound cynical. I really should stoop going to facutly meetings. They are terribly depressing.

    Comment by jdmimic — August 12, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    • Wow. Now that’s a rant and a half. Can I ask where you teach? My suspicion is that it’s not New Zealand. It’s certainly a problem if there is real incentive for you not to teach well. The NZ government is getting every more concerned about ensuring that it gets value-for-money for every student it supports at university (and the government pays about 80% of a domestic student’s tuition costs plus gives them interest-free loans) and so our teaching will become more closely scrutinized, to the point where the university may have its funding reduced if we do not teach our students well. That will mean for sure that the university will start to value good teaching more than it does at present.

      Comment by Marcus Wilson — August 13, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  2. I apologize for blowing off steam here. I teach in the US. We are told they want us to be great teachers, but when it comes to what our university administration judge us on, it is our worth as revenue generators. It would be nice to work in a place that actually made teaching a primary goal. Our school is going through a series of talks with the administration right now on their new policies that have made it clear where their priorities are. The morale is particularly low at the moment.

    Comment by jdmimic — August 13, 2010 @ 4:43 pm

    • Don’t apologise :-) One of the good things about a community-of-interest like this is that you can share frustrations with like-minded people. And what you’ve said provides something of a salutary lesson for us in NZ; it shows us the way things could go/have gone here. (I must say, I get really frustrated with the huge emphasis given to our ‘PBRF’, or Performance-Based-Research-Fund: it covers 20% of our government funding & as Marcus says, the other 80% is for teaching. And yet there is this huge focus on PBRF-related work…

      Comment by alison — August 14, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

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