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Change our assessment practices? Why should we?
The theory behind assessment practices.

EJK McKellar
Rhodes University, South Africa
Tel: +27 43 7047031
Fax: +27 43 70

Paper presented at the Learning Communities and Assessment Cultures Conference organised by the EARLI Special Interest Group on Assessment and Evaluation, University of Northumbria, 28-30 August 2002

"Every educational practice implies a concept of man and the world... Educational practices ... do not exist apart from beliefs about people and the way in which they do and ought to interact in the world."

Grundy, 1987:7.

Academic staff registered for the Post-Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE) at Rhodes University, South Africa, a pilot course to provide tertiary teachers with a professional qualification, are introduced to a framework for thinking about their practice as teachers in a tertiary context. They are made aware of the emergence over time, of views in the sociology of education on the relationship between the individual and the state, reality, and the role which education does play or can play in either perpetuating or changing the status quo of that society. They are encouraged to think critically about these views, and to apply their understanding to their own disciplines.

This paper aims to outline four basic perspectives, dealt with in the PGCHE, to explain the development of these perspectives either as a reaction to, or a further refinement of an already existing perspective. The paper outlines beliefs about, and implications for educational practices, assessment in particular. Three of the perspectives are described by Habermas (in Grundy, 1987) as the technical, the practical and the emancipatory views. A fourth - and the most recent - is the post- structural perspective.

Different assessment practices lead to different types of, and attitudes towards student learning, which can be traced back to these perspectives. Familiarity with the rationale behind each assessment practice gives us a clearer understanding of what we are trying to achieve and, given our current practice, whether or not we are likely to succeed.

In addition to these emerging and changing views on knowledge, reality, the relationship between society and the individual, and the purpose of education in society, new understandings have also emerged of the different purposes assessment serves (Brown and Glasner, 1999; Luckett and Sutherland, 2000). In addition to the students and the institution, our assessment practices have implications for the corporate community, professional bodies, as well as for national governments and funding bodies. In addition, it is now recognised that assessment functions not only to assess learning, and to diagnose, and to provide for quality assurance of institutions and individuals, it also serves to develop student learning. Different assessment practices are needed to

satisfy these different purposes and stakeholders. As Luckett and Sutherland (2000:102) point out...

... If purposes of assessment remain implicit and vague, there is danger that different purposes become confused and conflated, so that assessment as a consequence fails to play an educative role.

How then do perspectives in the sociology of education impact on our assessment practices in a tertiary context? For most people, assessment is usually associated with writing examinations or tests. This introduces us directly to the first perspective historically, the technical, which is also sometimes called the traditional, positivist or scientific view of the modern era. As the name implies, it draws on scientific concepts and beliefs, and applies these to social settings, such as educational and sociological contexts. Here the view of reality is that there are universal immutable truths and absolute facts, a single reality 'out there' which is the same for all people. This technical view therefore holds that knowledge is objective and value-free, i.e. it is neutral in that it does not have any significance or power beyond itself. Knowledge in this technical perspective consists of theories grounded in empirical observation and experience of the world. This conception is based on the premise that all have equal opportunity, so life is fair. Intelligence is regarded as fixed and measurable, and in a meritocratic society it is fair that each will be assessed, and will achieve according to his/her ability.

This view regards knowledge as an end product, which can be measured, as well as predicted and therefore controlled (Grundy, 1987). As the purpose of education in this perspective is to prepare the youth to contribute to the well-being of the society as a whole, the purpose of assessment is to determine the degree to which the end product has been achieved, and to grade, rank and select according to achievement.

The focus of assessment is thus on the products of the learning - a limited range of relatively easy-to-measure competencies, such as discrete facts, content knowledge and basic skills. In this traditional perspective assessment methods - usually tests and examinations - are formal, externally imposed and summative. The student is regarded as a recipient of pre-existing knowledge transmitted by the expert. Student learning focuses on memorising information in order to give it back under pressure in a year-end three-hour examination. Memorising without understanding and learning by rote are what Marton and Säljö, 1988; Biggs and Entwistle, 1987; Svensson, 1977, (all in Ramsden 1992) term surface learning.

The limitations of the technical perspective are widely acknowledged. The beliefs of the second perspective, the practical or hermeneutic perspective, are largely reaction to the conceptions of the technical perspective. In the practical perspective reality is not regarded as 'out there' but is rather seen as individually constructed, and shared within an historical, social and political context. Humans are regarded as active creators of knowledge rather than the passive recipients envisaged in the technical perspective. Since students must actively construct their own understanding, deep learning (Marton and Saljo, 1988; Biggs and Entwistle, 1987; Svensson, 1977, all in Ramsden 1992) is more likely to occur.

In the practical perspective there are thus multiple constructions of reality as each individual's understanding will be subjective and unique, coloured and shaped by the individual's social, historical and personal contexts. Since objectivity is not possible, and educational practices are not value-free, individual assumptions and values need to be made explicit. This would lead to a two-directional flow of information between students and teachers, as students must construct their own understanding, aided by the teacher. In the practical perspective the purpose of action is to achieve harmony through mutual understanding of the institutional requirements, and appropriate action to achieve this is the aim.

In such a view action that would be deemed appropriate would include institutional provision of support structures to help students in need to meet institutional standards in assessment practices. The establishment of Writing Centres and foundation Courses are examples of such support. Support for students with perceived deficits focuses on the processes of learning. Writing Centres help students to develop the recognised skills of good writers who use techniques such as drafting and redrafting of their assignments to achieve success (see Johns, 1990; Raimes, 1985; Connor, 1987). Opportunities for drafting and redrafting in response to comment provide students with formative assessment during the writing process. Foundation courses aim to provide deficient students with the basic skills which they will then be in a position to apply at a later stage to the context in which they are needed.

The assumption is that all have equal opportunity and life is fair if those who need it are given extra help in order to succeed. In the practical/hermeneutic perspective the role of the institution as the gatekeeper of assessment standards and practices is accepted without questioning, and is not brought under scrutiny. Students must be helped to achieve institutionally pre-determined standards. Since institutional practices are not questioned, traditional assessment practices are likely to be retained with the result that while a proportion of student learning is likely to be deep learning, meeting the institutional assessment requirements will encourage students to engage in strategic learning, a combination of a certain amount of deep learning, with whatever surface learning is required for the particular context in which that student is placed.

In spite of the extra support provided in the form of Writing Centres and Foundation courses, some students - usually those who do not share the cultural capital of the institution - continue to fail. This leads us to consider the third perspective, Critical Theory, which addresses itself to educational questions of vital concern in the on-going quest to make life fair. Such questions include searching for the reasons why some students persistently fail, the reasons for some being unmotivated or more difficult, the reasons for educational institutions being organised the way they are (Gibson, 1986). Critical Theorists recognise a need to liberate people from what they regard as falsely held beliefs that society operates for the good of all.

Critical theorists recognise the influence of power in societal and educational contexts. They see this power as the means by which those in power maintain their dominance, and use the term 'false consciousness' to describe the beliefs that society operates for the good of all1. The concept of 'false consciousness' originated with Marxists who were critical of the capitalist idea that in a meritocracy - a society based on merit or survival of the fittest - everyone has equal opportunity, and therefore life is fair. Marxists saw this as imposing a 'false consciousness' on the minorities and the oppressed within that society. Marxists hold that there are hidden powers in having people believe this, that perpetuating this false belief is the means by which those in power maintain their power.

The focus of critical theorists is thus on the struggles of the oppressed, such as ethnic minorities, women and the working class. Critical theory contests the arbitrary use of power to maintain the status quo. Its intention is liberatory / emancipatory, and it has the practical intent of criticising and subverting domination in all its forms, with an explicit interest in the abolition of social injustice (Jack, 2002). Critical theorists advocate that false consciousness - unthinkingly perpetuating accepted norms - can be challenged through critical reflection. Enlightenment from false consciousness discloses the true interests - needs and concerns, advantages or vested interests, and self-interests - of individuals and groups (Grundy, 1987). Critical theorists hold that privileged groups have an interest in maintaining the status quo in order to protect their advantages. Critical theory aims to expose these "roots of injustice and inequality" (Gibson, 1986:5) and to "break the grip of all closed systems of thought" (Jack, 2002).

Critical theorists maintain that in education, as in all other spheres of the super structure2, nothing is neutral, objective or disinterested, that all are constructions serving the interests of certain groups. They see all facts as "socially constructed, humanly determined and interpreted" (Gibson, 1986:4), and that what might apply to and benefit one group might not be valid for all. For educationists thinking about assessment, "breaking the grip" translates into examining our taken-for-granted practices and assumptions, and examining our everyday assessment practices in a more critical light in order to challenge the commonly held beliefs that society operates for the good of all. Critical theorists would ask whose interests the assessment practices serve, those of the institution or of the students? They would also ask whether the assessment practices are valid; whether assessment is being used to develop as well as to judge learning; whether the assessment practices are transparent.

Many tertiary institutions operating in the 1960's and 1970's from the hermeneutic or practical perspective of Habermas, established Academic Development Centres. The work of such centres focuses on giving 'deficient' students the skills they need to succeed in the existing dominant system. Critical theorists, however, believe that these students are different rather than deficient, and that diversity needs to be recognised, accepted, accommodated and celebrated by the system. Critical theorists maintain that it is the institutions or systems that must adapt to accommodate the needs of the increasingly diverse student body.

In Higher Education this translates into curriculum reform and learner-centred teaching to create a learning environment that meets the needs of individual students whatever their origin or background. In order to achieve curriculum reform the focus of Academic Development Centres shifts from supporting students, to staff development, in order to provide academic staff with the rationale and skills for institutional transformation. The newly introduced PGCHE is an example of such a staff development programme. Through curriculum reform, meeting the assessment needs of diverse students is built into the curriculum itself.

The shift in focus from student- to staff development for curriculum reform, is further supported by recent research into literacy acquisition (Gee, 1990; Johns, 1997; Angelil-Carter, 1995, Boughey, 2001). The research into literacy acquisition suggests that academic discourses are better acquired than taught, and cannot be acquired in the vacuum of discrete Foundation or Academic Literacy courses. This research suggests that an academic discourse is not a superficial set of generic skills that can be passed on to students which they will later be able to apply in a variety of authentic contexts; members of a discourse share values, feelings, ways of acting and speaking that cannot be overtly taught. Acquisition of a discourse comes gradually over time through processes of immersion and assimilation in those discourses themselves3.

With regard to assessment practices, curriculum reform to accommodate the needs of a diverse student body would include making previously implicit standards for assessment explicit. One example here would be the provision of assessment criteria for each assessment task and discussion of these criteria with students being assessed, so that they are not only informed of the standards but also in a position to challenge these. Providing opportunities for the deconstruction of academic genres of writing would also contribute towards making norms explicit, and allowing for challenge.

In addition since it is acknowledged that assessment serves a number of purposes, amongst these, the development of student learning, another appropriate curriculum reform strategy would be the introduction of formative assessment. Formative assessment provides opportunities for students to learn through the processes of drafting and redrafting in response to comment, and, since no mark is assigned during the drafting stages "gives students practice in developing essential skills without fear of failure" (Miller, Imrie and Cox, 1998:32). Formative assessment also informs teachers about their students' strengths and weaknesses, and grasp of the topic, which in turn feeds back into further curriculum development.

Another empowering assessment strategy is the introduction of learning contracts, so that students formally address the issue of their own responsibility in the learning process. Since empowerment encourages individual ownership and responsibility, a deep approach to learning is likely to result. Further, the implementation of student self- and peer-assessment strategies develops critical reflective abilities in students who are then in a position to make personal judgements on their own progress (see Gibbs, 1999). All of these strategies aim to make explicit the assessment requirements of students, and in so doing to empower them to meet and to challenge the requirements.

It would seem to me, however, that empowerment strategies tend not to be as effective as desired in bringing about a more just and equitable society. In one example to illustrate this, Willis (1977) was attempting a Marxist analysis of a school to show that working class children get working class jobs because the system imposes on them the values of the dominant middle class. Willis' research, however, showed that the children themselves were contributing towards the continuation of their situation through the discourse about education to which they subscribed. This finding introduces us to the fourth perspective in this analysis, the post-structural perspective.

Post-structuralists are so named because they argue against foundational assumptions of there being meta-narratives. The technical, practical and emancipatory perspectives are regarded as structuralist because they believe that there are structures - underlying unities within the social forces of society - which lead to certain situations in society. Post-structuralists contend that there is diversity in situations in which others see structural unity (Macleod, 2002). Post-structuralists see everything as individual and temporal rather than as controlled by structures or forces larger than the individuals involved, and therefore prefer to look at what can be seen at one place and in anyone particular moment in time. This is what labels them as post- structuralist.

Post-structuralists, however, do not reject the belief to which hermeneutics and critical theory also subscribe, that everything occurs within the conditions of social relations. Nor do post-structuralists reject the moral, ethical and political (i.e. power) commitments underlying social enquiry. For post-structuralists nothing is seen as independent of the conditions of the social relations in which they occur; rather everything is contextually, historically and socially embedded (Popkewitz, 1995). In this sense post-structuralism needs to be seen as existing on a continuum with hermeneutics and critical theory rather than in reaction or opposition to it.

In order to describe the post-structural view of the relationship between society and the individual, it is necessary to take a step back in time to the Marxist view, from which the post-structural view developed. The Marxist view of reality envisages society as consisting of and controlled by a super-structure and a base. The super-structure includes all systems by which social life is organised, such as the systems of Banking and Finance, Law, Education, Religion, the Media, the Arts, Medicine, etc. These systems have developed over time and are supported by or controlled through an underlying base structure. For Marxists the base is the various economic systems which exist in societies, such as Feudalism, Capitalism or Communism4, Marxists believe that the economic base determines the super- structure, and name this 'economic determinism'.

In this relationship between base and super-structure, Post-structuralists give emphasis to language in history and in power relations, and see discourses rather than economic systems as the normalising or controlling base on which the super- structure of society is founded (Boughey, 2002). Post-structuralism thus privileges language as being constitutive of social life, not only in its expression of social affairs, but also in its ability to define and create the world in which we live. According to Popkewitz (1995:142) for post-structuralists the "notion of 'text' is central".

Texts or discourses include not just the written words, but the whole sets of ideas and beliefs, values and attitudes, that are operationalised through language.

Discourses give rise to people and events in the world because language constructs us as people. This is what is meant by being 'languaged into being'. In such a system power resides not in having knowledge; power is seen as residing in the discourses to which people subscribe, and as being exercised through the disciplining of individuals by their discourses. Such power is "inscribed in the rules through which people 'reason' about the world and self" (Popkewitz, 1995:144). Discourses are thus viewed as the normalising mechanisms which control or discipline groups within societies5.

For the children in Willis' research their beliefs or discourse about schooling constructed them. According to Boughey (2002) they had grown up in a discourse which held that school was for sissies; that "real men go down the mine". Individuals construct themselves within the context of their discourses. This example is borne out by my personal experience as a South African teacher in a lower economic area: children who could have coped intellectually with tertiary study dropped out of school to go out to work because this was the norm to which they were subscribed by their discourse on education.

Discourses are not static and stable but rather always in flux, open to change as new ideas emerge and challenge the existing beliefs and practices within them. Post-structuralists operating from a ludic position would suggest that since this is the case, why worry about assessment practices? They are temporal and transient, and are therefore not worth our concern. Post-structuralism, however, also provides an opportunity for humanising education since it subscribes to a person- centred pedagogy in which each person is ultimately the agent of her own learning, actively involved in constructing and arranging her own knowledge and understanding. In this sense it supports a constructivist view of knowledge. In this regard post-structuralists would encourage dialogue and negotiation of assessment practices between staff and students, such as negotiation of curriculum, assessment tasks, and of assessment criteria.

In order to understand or challenge the status quo, post-structuralists would examine the discourses which constitute our social practices and identity. This deconstruction of the text or texts within that discourse is called discourse analysis. Such analysis would reveal the ways in which a particular discourse has constructed us, our beliefs and understanding of our position with regard to assessment, and that of others in society. Post-structuralists arguing from this resistance position would want us to be very conscious of the discourses on assessment practices to which we subscribe ourselves or are subscribed by the historical, social, and temporal contexts in which we operate. Discourse analysis of institutional, departmental and individual policy, practice, and understanding of assessment would disclose the subtleties of assumptions, power relations and attitudes immanent in our assessment practices.

Examining the implicit assumptions and practices about assessment to which we subscribe or are subscribed may lead us to reflect critically and make changes in what we do. An understanding of the disciplining nature of discourses also helps us comprehend the resistances that individual students and academics must contend with in attempting to break from their existing beliefs, practices and experiences with regard to assessment.

This paper has attempted to provide a synopsis of the educational theory underlying assessment practices from four theoretical perspectives in order that we are informed and critically reflective about our assessment practices. Rather than seeing each of these perspectives as mutually exclusive and discarding one in favour of another, our understanding of the theory should enable us to draw on what is useful in each of these perspectives according to our assessment needs and purposes. Understanding the theory should also enable us to critique, develop and ultimately justify how we assess as an essential facet of our teaching and our students' learning.

The power of assessment as a means of directing student learning cannot be under-valued. Boud (1988, in Brown and Glasner, 1999:4) holds that "assessment methods and requirements probably have a greater influence on how and what students learn than any other single factor". The view that the students hold of themselves as learners determines their attitude and sense of responsibility to and ownership of their learning.

Assessment defines for students what is important, what counts, how they will spend their time and how they will see themselves as learners. If you want to change student learning, then change the methods of assessment.

Brown, Bull and Pendlebury (1997:6,

in Luckett and Sutherland, 1997:6).


Angelil-Carter, S. (1995). Uncovering plagiarism in academic writing: originality, genres and development. Proceedings of the Kenton Conference, In pursuit of equality, S-A Robertson (Ed.). Juta and Co., 76-94.

Boughey, C. (2000). Multiple metaphors in an understanding of academic literacy. Teachers and teaching: theory and practice, 6 (3), 279-290.

Boughey, C. (2002). Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Guest Lecture on Critical theory and Post-structuralism with regard to assessment. Rhodes University, East London Campus, 15 April 2002.

Brown, S. and Glasner, A. (Eds.). (1999). Assessment matters in Higher Education: choosing and using diverse approaches. SRHE and Open University press: Buckingham.

Connor, U. (1987). Research frontiers in writing analysis. TESOL Quarterly, 21 (4), 677 -696.

Gee, J P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: ideology in discourses. Falmer Press: Basingstoke.

Gibbs, G. (1999). Using assessment strategically to change the way students learn. In 5 Brown and A Glasner (Eds.). Assessment matters in Higher Education: choosing and using diverse approaches. SRHE and Open University Press: Buckingham.

Gibson, R. (1986). Critical theory and education. Hodder and Stoughton: London.

Jack, N. (2002). Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Guest Lecture on Critical Theory, Rhodes University, East London, March 2002.

Johns, A M. (1993). Written argumentation for real audiences: suggestions for teacher research and classroom practice, TESOL Quarterly, 27 (1), 75-90.

Johns I A M. (1997). Text, role and context: developing academic literacies. Cambridge University press: Cambridge.

Luckett, K. and Sutherland, L. (2000). Assessment practices that improve teaching and learning. In Makoni, S. (Ed.). Teaching and learning in Higher Education: a handbook for Southern Africa. Witwatersrand Press: Johannesburg.

Macleod, C. (2002). Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education Guest Lecture on Post Structuralism. Rhodes University, East London, March 2002.

Miller, A Ho, Imrie, B W. and Cox, K. (1998). Student assessment in Higher Education: a handbook for assessing performance. Kogan Page: London.

Popkewitz, T. S. (1995). Critical traditions, the linguistic turn and education. In P. Higgs, (Ed.). Metatheories in philosophy of education. Heinemann: Johannesburg.

Raimes, A. (1991). Out of the woods: emerging traditions in the teaching of writing. TESOL Quarterly, 28 (2), 273-292.

Ramsden,P. (1992). Learning to teach in Higher Education. Routledge and Falmer: London.

Willis , P. E (1977). Learning to labour how working class kids get working class jobs. Saxon House: Farnborough.

Appendix A:

A representation of the Marxist conception of base and super-structure in society. (Boughey, 2002).

Appendix B:

A representation of the post-structuralist view of the reality upon which society is based:


1. The original Critical theorists, Horkheimer, From, Marcuse and Adorno, often referred to as the 'Frankfurt School', were middle class German Jews, and had personally experienced the effects of discriminatory practices in which their own needs were being subjected to the needs of others more dominant and powerful than themselves.

2. See Appendix A for a diagrammatic representation of the Marxist view of Base and Superstructure.

3. For an example of an attempt in one institution to introduce a discrete academic literacy course and the result that emerged, see McKellar, EJK. "Unexpected rewards in a student development initiative", submitted for publication in Educational studies in Mathematics.

4. For a diagrammatic representation of the Marxist view of Base and Superstructure see Appendix A.

5. For a diagrammatic representation of the post-structural perspective of the relationship between Base and Superstructure, see Appendix B.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 21 October 2002