Assessment criteria has made a McNugget of students' education

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Comment: Stephen Jones

Consider, if you will, the Chicken McNugget. In many respects it's a brilliant concept. Food - in this case chicken - broken down into tasty bite-sized morsels. As consumer, all you need to do is pop it in your mouth and chew.

There's nothing wrong with it. Just chicken made easy. At the same time, it's no substitute for the real thing: a whole chicken. Nor is it to be mistaken for a breast or a leg or, come to think of it, a drumstick.

There is an argument that this is what we have been doing to learning over the past 10 to 15 years: breaking it down into bite-sized gobbets of information that can be chewed over and "digested" one by one by hungry learners.

Most courses, in what is ponderously termed the "post-compulsory" sector of education, have become McNuggetised. That is, they spell out what is required of successful students - first, in broad terms, or learning outcomes - and then in a series of specific competences known as assessment criteria. As it suggests, if you can show - through demonstration or in writing - you have met that criterion, you have "passed" that part of the course.

Until recently, I have managed to stay on the fringes of all this. I stopped teaching A-levels just as Curriculum 2000 was coming in. I count myself lucky. Watching a class of teenagers disassemble a Shakespeare sonnet recently to be able to tick the boxes in the technical side of their poetry assessment was dispiriting.

What I learnt - what they learnt - was that those 14 lines were made up of 10 metaphors, six similes, four alliterations, two assonances and a dollop of onomatopoeia. And there was me thinking the Bard was writing - in beautiful and telling images - about being young and in love.

Post A-levels, my teaching has mainly been with adults on Pre-Access and Access courses, and slower to be McNuggetised. Until the Government decided a couple of years back that the area had to be regularised, systematised and controlled, a large degree of autonomy was granted to those responsible for planning and teaching the courses.

Now, the regime of closely defined assessment criteria has taken hold - some would say by the throat - and is squeezing the life out of the qualifications.

But is it that bad? Breaking learning down into the criteria by which it will be assessed puts information into the hands of teachers and, more importantly, students. They know what they are aiming at and, if they miss the target, they can have another go.

Teachers are able to coach, aid and shape the responses of their students in ways that were impossible under less explicit regimes. Given this, few students fail; this is good for the students and for the institutions, which are being judged more and more on their ability to raise pass rates.

All this is true. It is also true that Chicken McNuggets sell well, whatever their nutritional value.

In his 2007 paper, Assessment as Learning?, Manchester Metropolitan University's Harry Torrance suggests the over-emphasis on assessment criteria can be damaging. It encourages "instrumentalism". Students focus not on the material of their subject or specialism, but on how to pass the assessment. Instead of education or training being a broadening experience, its focus becomes narrow and constrained. And rather than students being challenged to become more autonomous, they become more dependent on the coaching and feedback of their teachers.

Most damningly, Professor Torrence concludes: "This might be characterised as a move from assessment of learning . to assessment as learning, where assessment procedures and practices dominate the learning experience, and `criteria compliance' replaces learning."

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