Susan Orr

  • Transparent opacity? Assessment in the inclusive academy

    Susan Orr, York St John
    Margo Blythman London Institute

    Conceptual paper

    Theme: Assessment

    This paper explores the concept of transparency in assessment and widening participation. The call for transparency in relation to assessment has three drivers. Firstly this is a requirement of the UK quality agency and reflects the increased accountability that is required by Government. Secondly, pedagogic shifts, arising out of approaches to learning research, call for transparency in relation to constructive alignment and the explication of assessment by writing clear learning outcomes (Biggs 2003, Rust 2002, O Donovan 2000). Thirdly, transparency in relation to assessment is seen as a means to widen participation by making the academy’s rules explicit to students.

    Whilst some would contest Government requirements, few would disagree that strategies that attempt to reduce the mystery of assessment have the potential to be of particular benefit to non traditional students. In this paper we look at the ways that transparency plays out in relation to assessment. We pose the question:

    Is assessment more transparent than it was before the advent of widening participation?

    Hussey and Smith (2002) contest the concept of transparency and argue that language does not simply conduct meaning, instead, it actually constructs meaning. Thus meaning comes into being between participants (Lillis 2001). Hussey and Smith (2002) reject the idea that knowledge (and thus assessment) can be made explicit. Wolf (2000) argues that learning outcomes can not be precise or transparent because the ‘subtexts of assessment’ inform practice at a tacit level (Sambell and McDowell 1998 page 394).

    To support this view, there is recent research that shows that when students are given what is apparently ‘clear’ information about assessment they are differentially able to use this information dependent on issues of class and self esteem (Ecclestone and Swann 1999, Morais 1996). There may be barriers in place that prevent underrepresented groups in HE from utilising the extra information they are now given about assessment requirements.

    We will argue that the tacit, differentially experienced, dimensions of assessment remain under researched because assessment is viewed as a monologic technology (Filer 2000). A shift to a social practices approach that draws on academic literacies research, enables us to explore the concept of transparency and to engage with lecturers in research that explores assessment as it is experienced by students and lecturers in the academy (Delanshere 2001, Chanock 2000).

    In this paper we focus on lecturers’ approaches to assessment, moving from what is a Quality Assurance Agency focus on the textual products of assessment (QAA 2000) to a research focus on the actors who assess.

    Strathern (2000 page 310) asks the question: What does the quest for transparency conceal?

    We will explore this question in relation to assessment and widening participation. Using a case study research project, we will argue that the current emphasis on transparency has encouraged researchers and practitioners to explore assessment in relation to written artefacts- for example, written learning outcomes. This has drawn research focus away from the ephemeral, dialogic contexts of assessment. By understanding how assessment communities operate, we offer insights in to how assessment work is done.