Taking a practice view of assessment
Edited extract from Boud, D. (2009) How can practice reshape assessment? in G. Joughin (ed.)Assessment, Learning and Judgement in Higher Education. Dordrecht: Springer, 29-43.
(with permission of the publisher)
Why should we consider starting with practice as a key organiser for assessment? Practice is anchored in the professional world, not the world of educational institutions. This means that there are multiple views of practice that are available external to the educational enterprise. Practice focuses attention on work outside the artifacts of the course—there is a point of reference for decision-making beyond course-determined assessment criteria and the actions that take place have consequences beyond those of formal assessment requirements. These create possibilities for new approaches to assessment. In addition to this, judgements of those in a practice situation (professional or client) make a difference to those involved. That is, there are consequences beyond the learning of the student that frame and constrain actions. These provide a reality-check not available in an internally-referenced assessment context. These considerations raise the stakes, intensify the experience and embody the learner more thoroughly in situations that anticipate engagement as a full professional. As we see beyond our course into the world of professional practice, assessment becomes necessarily authentic: authenticity does not need to be contrived.
To sum up, a ‘practice’ perspective helps us to focus on a number of issues for assessment tasks within the mainstream of university courses. These include:
1. Locating assessment tasks in authentic contexts.
These need not necessarily involve students being placed in external work settings, but involve the greater use of features of authentic contexts to frame assessment tasks. They could model or simulate key elements of authentic contexts.
2. Establishing holistic tasks rather than fragmented ones.
The least authentic of assessment tasks are those taken in isolation and disembodied from the settings in which they are likely to occur. While tasks may need to be disaggregated for purposes of exposition and rehearsal of the separate elements, they need to be put back together again if students are to see knowledge as a whole.
3. Focusing on the processes required for a task rather than the product or outcome per se.
Processes and ways of approaching tasks can often be applied from one situation to another whereas the particularities of products may vary markedly. Involving students in ways of framing tasks in assessment is often neglected in conventional assessment.
4. Learning from the task, not just demonstrating learning through the task.
A key element of learning from assessment is the ability to identify cues from tasks themselves which indicate how they should be approached, the criteria to be used in judging performance and what constitutes successful completion.
5. Having consciousness of the need for refining the judgements of students, not just the judgement of students by others.
Learning in practice involves the ability to continuously learn from the tasks that are encountered. This requires progressive refinement of judgements by the learner which may be inhibited by the inappropriate deployment of the judgements of others when learners do not see themselves as active agents.
6. Involving others in assessment activities, away from an exclusive focus on the individual.
Given that practice occurs in a social context, it is necessary that the skill of involving others is an intrinsic part of learning and assessment. Assessment with and for others needs far greater emphasis in courses.
7. Using standards appropriate to the task, not on comparisons with other students.
While most educational institutions have long moved from inappropriate norm-referenced assessment regimes, residues from them still exist. The most common is the use of generic rather than task-specific standards and criteria that use statements of quality not connected to the task in hand (eg. abstract levels using terms such as adequate or superior performance, without a task-oriented anchor).
8. Moving away from an exclusive emphasis on independent assessment in each course unit towards development of assessment tasks throughout a program and linking activities from different courses.
The greatest fragmentation often occurs through the separate treatment of individual course units for assessment purposes. Generic student attributes can only be achieved through coordination and integration of assessment tasks across units. Most of the skills of practice discussed here develop over time and need practice over longer periods than a semester and cannot be relegated to parts of an overall program.
9. Acknowledging student agency and initiation rather than have them always responding to the prompts of others.
The design of assessment so that it always responds to the need to build student agency in learning and development is a fundamental challenge for assessment activities. This does not mean that students have to choose assessment tasks, but that they are constructed in ways that maximise active student involvement in them.
10. Building in an awareness of co-production of outcomes with others.
Practitioners not only work with others, but they co-produce with them. This implies that there needs to be assessment tasks in which students co-construct outcomes. While this does not necessarily require group assessment as such, it needs to design activities with multi-participant outcomes into an overall regime.
The challenge the practice perspective creates is to find ways of making some of these shifts in assessment activities in a higher education context that is moving rapidly in an outcomes-oriented direction, but which embodies the cultural practices of an era deeply sceptical of the excessively vocational. The implication of taking such a perspective is not that more resources are required or that we need to scrap what we are doing and start again. It does however require a profound change of perspective. We need to move from privileging our own academic content and of assessing students as if our part of the course was more important than anything else, to a position that is more respectful of the use of knowledge, of the program as a whole and the need to build the capacity of students to learn and assess for themselves once they are out of our hands. Some of the changes required are incremental and involve no more than altering existing assessment tasks by giving them stronger contextual features. However, others create a new agenda for assessment and provoke us to find potentially quite new assessment modes that involve making judgements in co-production of knowledge. If we are to pursue this agenda, we need to take up the challenges and operate in ways in which our graduates are being increasingly required to operate in the emerging kinds of work of the twenty first century.