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University tests should be part and parcel of teaching - not stand-alone events

Standardised tests exist in education systems all over the world. South Africa is no exception – and its test results often make for depressing reading.

In 2014 education accounted for 6.2% of South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product and 19.1% of total government expenditure. International benchmarking studies like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and regional assessments such as the National Benchmark Tests suggest this money is not being well spent. The level and quality of South African schools’ learning outcomes tend to be lower than those of countries that invest significantly less in their schooling sectors. For example, Singapore spends 3% of its GDP on education, yet scores top in Mathematics and Science among 76 countries.

This shouldn’t be surprising. South Africa’s National Benchmark Tests are little more than a screening system for university applicants. They only assess students’ ability to combine aspects of prior learning in a few competency areas. They don’t address the systemic problem of poor learner performance.

This points to a much larger problem: namely, the deficiencies in South African schools’ and universities’ assessment practices. In our book Education, assessment and the desire for dissonance we argue that assessment should not be considered as a one-directional activity that’s detached from teaching and learning. Rather, assessment needs to involve doing things with others, rather than for others. It has to be embedded with teaching and learning.

Exam stress

Assessment should be a part of teaching and learning at universities. It’s important because it will subvert exclusion and allow all students to take responsibility for their work.

The problem is with how this assessment is currently structured. As university lecturers we have experienced it in quite a negative way.

Our students – we teach educational theory and practice – are enthusiastic about their education, and committed to it. But most worry a great deal about exams, as if their learning can be appropriately ascertained just through their performance in these tests. This concern is compounded by the overwhelming emphasis many lecturers place on examination results. Exams are seen as the ultimate corroboration of students’ understandings and insights.

This only happens because assessment is considered as that which “measures” learning: that is, assessment of learning. On top of that many of the formal opportunities students receive to consolidate and expand their insights are often erroneously connected to short pieces of work. These are mostly tests and assignments, according to which they are assessed.

At university, the repercussions of focusing on short bursts of measurable tasks often only present themselves when students opt to pursue postgraduate degrees. It’s not unusual, at the institution where we teach, to encounter students who access the master’s programme with remarkable results – since this is the criterion our institution uses to attract students in the first place.

These students come to us with particular understandings of their capacity to study and learn based on the results that we have given them.

Yet many of these “excellent” students battle at master’s level. Any attempt to extend the basics on which they had been assessed in the previous academic year, such as short pieces of work, is often met with serious ineptitude. They struggle to proffer their own perspectives or to articulate their own opinions. This is seemingly because they were not required to do so in previous programmes.

So neither the student nor the lecturer can exercise his or her governmentality. This is a term coined by French philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault, which refers to the way in which the state exercises control.

The student doesn’t have the autonomy to bring what’s required to fruition, such as a research proposal. This affects the student’s responsibility and self-esteem. The teacher does not have the autonomy to undo what’s been put in place in the first instance: institutional sanctioning via results.

There seems to be a disconnect between teaching and learning and assessment.

A new approach

Assessment in university remains at odds with a plausible notion of assessment because it does not lend itself to responsible and esteemed pedagogical action: that is, teaching and learning. For this shift to happen a different understanding of assessment is needed; one that transcends the notions of assessment of learning and assessment for learning.

We consider assessment as embedded in teaching and learning. It needs to unfold within teaching and learning. This implies that lecturers and students give an account of their actions to one another by making assertions, expressing doubts through questioning and indicating their desires by making particular requests.

As it stands now, you teach a particular concept and then assess whether a student has understood and learnt by posing particular questions.

What we’re suggesting, quite differently, is that assessment for learning occurs while the teaching unfolds. A student is able to give their own initial thoughts on a particular concept while it’s being taught. Students collaborate with their teacher to reach particular understandings. Teaching and learning takes on a deliberative rather than an instructional form.

In this space both lecturers and students are in a position to ask what is “good” and “best” in the enactment of their learning desires. They can do things differently so that assessment enhances rather than regulating teaching and learning. That is, without entirely doing away with assessment, start using assessment for learning as well.

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