Lee Sutherland

  • Implementing a National Qualifications Framework: has anything changed in terms of assessment in Higher Education?

    Lee Sutherland, University of Zululand

    Conceptual paper

    Theme: Assessment

    In recent years, there has been a concerted effort made in South Africa to develop student-centred learning in Higher Education. This has been made possible by legislation (the South African Qualifications Authority Act and the resulting National Qualifications Framework), by technology (virtual classrooms), by policy (the New Academic Policy) and by practice (the recognition of prior learning). But has anything really changed in terms of assessment of such learning? Are we just calling old tricks by new names, or has there been a shift towards giving students more ownership of their own assessment?

    Critical pedagogies (see Fairclough 1992 and Reynolds and Trehan, 200), by examining relationships of power and authority, offer some method by which to evaluate the changes that have occurred in terms of assessment practice. A critical perspective, in terms of assessment, calls into question the political and normative underpinnings of traditional assessment practices and styles. It is usually also characterised by the following:

    • Questioning assumptions and taken-for-granteds
    • Questioning normative underpinnings of the pedagogical style
    • Foregrounding processes of power
    • Noting how inequalities of power intersect with social factors such as race, gender and age
    • Identifying competing discourses
    • Developing a workplace and social milieu characterised more by justice than by inequality (Reynolds and Trehan, 2000, 267 - 268).

    An increasing number of educators and researchers writing about education argue that assessment has shown great positive potential for being a way of intervening to raise the quality of education (see for example Murphy, 1995, 268; Race, 1991 and Boud, 1995). However, there is also evidence to suggest that poor assessment practices can have a negative washback effect on learners (Alderson and Wall, 1993). The paper explores some of the ways in which this can happen.

    Many of the assessment practices which educators and learners have come to accept as the norm, in fact constitute an unequal power relationship. It is possible for educators to assert power over learners in a variety of ways in their assessment practices. Reynolds and Trehan (2000, 268), and others, show that assessment is a primary location for power relations due to the role it plays in granting or withholding qualifications - it maintains the legitimacy of the academy.

    This paper provides a brief critique of 'traditional' assessment practices in terms of power relations, as exemplified in South African Higher Education prior to its 'transformation' in 1995. It then goes on to review some of the changes that have been made in assessment practices, resulting from the SAQA Act and the implementation of the NQF.

    Finally, using a framework of critical pedagogy, it questions whether or not the use of self and peer assessments (see Boud, 1989 and Falchikov, 1989 and 1997), as participatory forms of assessment where the responsibility for making evaluations and judgements about students' written work is shared, offer some promise for shifting the locus of power to students.


    Alderson, J.C. and Wall, D. 1993. Does Washback Exist? Applied Linguistics, 14(2), 114 - 129.
    Boud, D. 1989. The role of self-assessment in student grading, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 14 (1), 20 - 30.
    Boud, D. 1995. Enhancing learning through self assessment. Kogan Page. London.
    Falchikov, N. 1989. Student self assessment in higher education: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 59, 395 - 430.
    Falchikov, N. 1997. Why do lecturers involve students in assessment? Paper presented at 2nd Northumbria Assessment Conference. September 1997.
    Fairclough, N.L.(ed) 1992. Critical Language Awareness. London: Longman.
    Murphy, P. 1995. Sources of inequity: understanding students' responses to assessment. Assessment in Education, 2 (3), 249 - 270.
    Race, P. 1991. Learning through assessing, Standing Conference on Education Development, SCEA 63. Newcastle.
    Reynolds, M. and Trehan, K. (2000): Assessment: a critical perspective, Studies in Higher Education, 25 (3), 267 - 278.