Nicola Parker

  • Diversity in High Places: Variation in highly achieving students' experiences of course work assignments

    Nicola Parker, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia

    Themes: Assessment; skills development and lifelong learning; supporting learners.

    Student diversity in higher education is an ever increasing challenge for teachers interested in optimising student learning. Diversity often exists invisibly and where we least expect it: highly achieving students are usually a pleasure to teach and may seem to need very little support to succeed in the traditional assignments which continue to dominate the assessment regimes in many faculties (Elton and Johnston, 2002). This seminar presents emerging findings from a phenomenographic study of highly achieving postgraduate students' ways of experiencing aspects of their course work assignments. Results suggest there may be considerable diversity even amongst this group. Questions about traditional assessment, assessment achievement and lifelong learning are posed for discussion.

    The seminar will use some examples from 18 phenomenographic interviews with six postgraduate course work students interviewed at three stages whilst completing the same report assessment. Conversational interviews focused on what was important for the students before, during and after the assignment process and illustrate variation under the following themes:

    1. Student relationships to Task Processes when completing assignments and their approach to perceived assignment process elements. Students' approaches varied in relation to these aspects of the process in quite distinctive ways.
    2. Negotiation of ‘What Enough Is’ in terms of information for different purposes, process requirements, assessment criteria, academic evaluation and very personal criteria.
    3. The Meaning the assignment has for these students at a broader level and how they link the process, content and product to personal and learning goals. This variation appears to be linked to powerful affective factors which also underlie a strong focus on constantly honing their skills (eg information, technology and writing).

    By looking more deeply at variation in learning from assessment for highly achieving students, we may gain a better perspective of the possibilities of traditional forms of assessment for all students and help them experience learning satisfaction and success (Ramsden, 2003). Understanding the diversity inherent in variation itself we can begin to understand more about the nature of learning.

    This fine grained exploration of the variation in approaches to assessment amongst highly achieving post graduate students can help us to better understand diversity in learning and assessment. Exploring the variation in conceptualisations and approaches to aspects of assignments in a group considered to be relatively homogenous may have important implications for maximising inclusivity for all students.

    Questions for discussion

    • What are the implications of variation in aspects of traditional assessment tasks, in a group who are seldom differentiated, for learning and assessment?
    • How can the extent of diversity that exists at one end of the learning spectrum be harnessed in practice to support all learners?
    • What are the links between assessment achievement and the development of lifelong learning skills?


    • Elton, L. and Johnston, B. (2002). Assessment in Universities: A Critical Review. Retrieved January 15, 2004, from Learning and Teaching Support Network Generic Centre: York Website:
    • Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education (2nd ed.) Chap 10. London: Routledge Falmer.