Monday, 11 April 2011

Education or qualification?

The other day a colleague was bemoaning the fact that students weren't turning up for lectures. To anyone teaching in higher education this is a familiar scenario: the end of term is approaching, there are lots of coursework submission deadlines, the content which relates to the coursework has all been covered already, etc. etc. All of these factors often lead to one thing: half empty lecture rooms. My response to my colleague was that a lot of our students are what I call 'strategic' learners. This is particularly the case with part time students who only attend university on one day per week and may have demanding employment alongside their studies. These students tend to focus on activities which contribute to assessment. If this means that certain aspects of the course are treated rather superficially, or even ignored, then so be it. Passing the course and gaining the qualification is, for many students, more important than the deep learning which we as academics like to promote. In other words, many of our students are more interested in getting a qualification than an education.

A common response to this problem is to use the module assessment regime as a 'stick' to beat students with. The argument runs something like this: if students have to sit an exam at the end of the module then they will be much more likely to attend all the lectures to ensure that they don't miss any of the content and, more importantly, don't miss any hints about what might be in the exam. Or, even better, why not have short, sharp in-class tests at regular intervals throughout the module. Provided the tests contribute to the overall module marks, the students effectively have to turn up to classes.

I was reflecting on this in the light of the work we have been doing in H807 this week. One of the activities this week has involved looking at assessment practices in the context of Web 2.0. Personally, I have serious reservations about the value of exams and tests as a means of assessing learning. I can empathise very strongly with the view put forward by Elliot (2008) in his paper about assessment in the age of Web 2.0:

"Some educationalists claim that the current assessment system encourages surface learning and "teaching to the test". Instead of instilling genuine problem solving skills, it fosters memorisation. Examination papers that appear to pose 'deep' questions are answered by rote memory – memories that are acquired by students under pressure from parents who want to see their children gain qualifications, and drilled by teachers who are seeking to meet targets." (Elliot, 2008)
I have no doubt that greater use of exams and tests would ensure that lectures were better attended. But isn't this missing the point somewhat? If students are not turning up to our lectures, doesn't this mean that they either don't want to, perhaps because the lectures are boring, or they don't need to, because the lectures don't give them anything that they can't get somewhere else? If it's the former, then we as academic staff have to take some responsibility for this. Are our lectures engaging enough? If it's the latter, then maybe it raises the question of whether traditional lectures are simply obsolete as a means of conveying information, especially when students can access information in so many different ways.

So – what is the point of using exams and tests as a way of forcing students to attend lectures, if the lectures themselves are actually not providing much of an educational experience? I think that well designed assessment should actually be integral to the learning which takes place in a module. The assessment can actually provide the vehicle for students to put in to practice the application of the concepts and principles which form the content of a module. Rather than seeing assessment as something which is tacked on to a module simply as a means of determining whether the learning outcomes have been achieved, the assessment activities can be the means by which the learning outcomes are achieved.

Undoubtedly, Web 2.0 technologies can make a significant contribution to effective assessment. Referring again to Elliot (2008), he suggests that the type of assessment activity best suited to the contemporary learner would exhibit some or all of the following characteristics.

  • Authentic: involving real-world knowledge and skills.
  • Personalised: tailored to the knowledge, skills and interests of each student.
  • Negotiated: agreed between the learner and the teacher.
  • Engaging: involving the personal interests of the student.
  • Recognise existing skills: willing to accredit the student's existing work.
  • Deep: assessing deep knowledge – not memorisation.
  • Problem oriented: original tasks requiring genuine problem solving skills.
  • Collaboratively produced: produced in partnership with fellow students.
  • Peer and self assessed: involving self reflection and peer review.
  • Tool supported: encouraging the use of ICT
With the fantastic potential offered by Web 2.0 technologies should we really be looking to Victorian assessment methods simply to ensure that students turn up for lectures that probably aren't particularly useful in the first place. Let's focus on the positive aspects which can be derived from Web 2.0 rather than worry about minor disadvantages. Let's use Web 2.0 to ensure that assessment actually encourages our students to get an education rather than just a qualification.



Elliott, B. (2008) Assessment 2.0: Modernising Assessment in the Age of Web 2.0 [online], Scottish Qualifications Authority; available from (Accessed 8th April 2011).


  1. Hello Tom,

    this post helped me a little in my H807 low point.
    I have not looked in detali to assesments so far, but I am hocked now. Thanks

  2. Hi Ulli
    Glad it helped. Just read your blog about your low point. I think most learners (and particularly online learners) have these low points. I had a major one last year in H800 but we need to keep things in perspective. Fortunately my tutor group provided encouragement and support. In the absence of face-to-face contact I think we need to promote as many channels of communication as possible.Hence, as well as the forum, I use my blog, and also Twitter as a way of interacting.
    Good luck.

  3. Your points are well made (as per usual!) and, although I'm working in a business context rather than in HE, I'm totally with you on this. In addition to Eliot I was taken by Whitelock's 'advice on action' principle as a form of more forward looking evaluation of learning, something I'd like to apply more in my own context. It occurs to me that this principle might perhaps be easier/more relevant to apply in a work context?