Assessment issues arising from Subject Benchmarking Statements

Benchmarking and assessment

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Benchmarking and assessment

The subject benchmarking process makes generally explicit the intended learning outcomes, the kinds of content, the learning experiences and the assessment demands embedded in curricula. With the exception of the attention being given to the intended learning outcomes (a relatively recent addition to curriculum design in higher education), the subject benchmark statements have a lot in common with the kinds of documentation that were produced for programmes running under the aegis of the former Council for National Academic Awards. The difference, of course, is that the statements apply across the whole of the higher education sector.

A consideration of assessment, as far as standards are concerned, has to have primary emphasis on the demands of summative assessment and their relationship with intended learning outcomes. (To be sure, formative assessment has an important influence on the attainment of standards, but this is a secondary consideration here.)
Assessment, however, is a problematic issue for higher education. Whilst there is a wealth of practice to draw on (see books such as S Brown and Knight, 1994; G Brown et al, 1997; and Heywood, 2000), this practice is generally undertheorised and the technical qualities and implications of grading scales are weakly understood. Assessment tends to be a pragmatic exercise that is primarily informed and influenced by custom and practice. There are, however, a number of additional drivers that are affecting assessment, including modularisation, the introduction of learning outcomes, the standards required by professional and statutory regulatory bodies and subject benchmarking. Consequently, there are potential challenges regarding the use of benchmarking in the assessment of student performance: amongst these are the dispersion of skill demonstration across a number of modules, the extent to which intended learning outcomes can accommodate creative or innovatory work by the student, and the alignment of intended learning outcomes with the expectations of professional and statutory regulatory bodies.
The Student Assessment and Classification Working Group [SACWG] undertook some pilot investigations into the benchmarking of assessment in three subject areas – Business Studies, Computer Studies and History – in a number of new universities (see Yorke et al, 1998; Woolf, Cooper et al 1999; Yorke, 1999). These investigations showed, broadly, that

1. the educational aims of the similarly titled programmes in the same subject were broadly similar;

2 it was more difficult to make a judgement of this kind with respect to individual study units or modules (but it was noted that the main frame of reference should be the programme as a whole);

3 modules which appeared to be similar nevertheless had very different kinds of assessment process and demand; and

4 a consequence of (1) to (3) above was that one could not say with any certainty whether the actual outcomes of the assessment process were comparable.
These findings derived from a suite of projects on benchmarking assessment practice that were published by the QAA (Jackson, 1998). This work demonstrated the power of professional discussion within a benchmarking context. But it also highlighted the inherent difficulty of comparing such complex matters as the assessment of higher education learning. It is worth bearing these developmental studies in mind when considering subject benchmarking. The HEQC sponsored studies prepared the ground for the benchmarking activity sponsored by the QAA although the latter adopted a very different approach.

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