Assessment issues arising from Subject Benchmarking Statements

Figure 1. Schematic representation of the relationship between practical

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Figure 1. Schematic representation of the relationship between practical

utility and precision in the specification of performance criteria.






A number of expected outcomes imply the integration of knowledge and skills in some way. Some of this integration tends to be ‘academic’ in that it is applied to intellectual and practical matters within the academy. Some is more obviously technical and/or professional in its orientation. Table 2, in an attempt to present an overview of 25 subject benchmark statements, makes a rough apportionment of integrative activity between the academic and the technical/professional, though it is acknowledged that others might divide up the listed expected outcomes in a different way – the nature of the subject discipline would, of course, be strongly influential here.
The section of Table 2 labelled ‘Cognitive’ deals largely with matters that Bloom (1956) would place in the cognitive domain. There are perhaps two foci of interest. The first is that a number of expectations are marked with an ‘O’, indicating that, whilst they are expectations, they do not obviously appear in the performance criteria listed in the relevant subject benchmark statement (they may well, of course, appear in actual assessments). The second is the number of blank cells. The nature of higher education is such that, although the blank cells indicate the lack of an explicit identification, it is very unlikely that they represent the true picture in the subjects represented in the Table. The benchmarking panels will have brought their own disciplinary perspectives to bear, within which some expectations are likely to have been ‘taken as read’ and not to have needed formal articulation.
Whilst a similar pair of points can be made in respect of expectations located under the ‘Professional/Technical’ heading, some expectations – such as risk assessment, advocacy and expertise regarding quality assurance – are not relevant to honours degrees in the less practically or professionally oriented subjects.

Personal and interpersonal skills
The Dearing ‘key skills’ of communication, numeracy and the use of information technology13 are prominent in the sections of Table 2 that are labelled ‘Personal’ and ‘Interpersonal’. Working with others (or teamwork) is also very strongly represented14, autonomy in learning and self-evaluation being a little less to the fore. These are expectations that, with some exceptions (like the use of information technology in Computing or the use of written communication across the spectrum of subjects), are not easy to assess validly, reliably, ethically and economically. Shaw (1998, pp.14-15) had earlier found that staff perceptions of the extent to which they assessed ‘capability’15 were not borne out when the actual assessment methods were checked. It is therefore a little surprising to find a number of the personal and interpersonal expectations reflected in the performance criteria (marked with an ‘X’) in Table 2 16. There would seem to be, prima facie, considerable difficulty regarding the establishment of benchmarks for performances in this area.
One way out of the problem of assessing personal and interpersonal expectations (though it does not lead towards discipline-wide benchmarks) would be to require students to make claims that they have made satisfactory (or good, or excellent) progress regarding the relevant expectations, buttressing their claims with evidence. An approach along these lines is described in Yorke (1998). One of the problems in this area is that students are sometimes unaware of the skills and attributes that they have, and hence lack a baseline for further development. An illustration of the point can be found in McLeman and Smith’s (1998) report of the Career Management Initiative at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College.

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