Jenny Morris

  • Assessment motivations and behaviours of students from non-standard backgrounds

    Jenny Morris, Colchester Institute

    Research paper

    Theme: diversity and inclusivity

    Studies which have investigated the assessment performance of students from non-standard academic backgrounds have identified that these students perform as well, or better, than school-leavers (Richardson, 1994). This research is important, but it does not consider the students’ attitudes towards assessment or the outcomes of undergoing assessment. These are relevant issues to address as they influence the learning which students are anticipated to undergo as part of undertaking assessment activities (Biggs, 2003).

    The students participating in this exploratory longitudinal study were registered on a pre-registration physiotherapy programme specifically designed to widen access. They differed from the standard physiotherapy student in several ways:

    • Only two were over 21 years on registration
    • Their level of academic achievement on entry would not meet the minimum academic requirements normally set for entry to physiotherapy education.
    • all had experience either as physiotherapy or rehabilitation assistants and this employment continued throughout the duration of the part-time programme.

    The curriculum design of the programme follows an ethos of a coherent model of learning based on established educational research evidence. Within this, the principles of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003) are enshrined in the design and execution of assessment. A range of assessment formats is used including unseen and open-book examinations, practical examinations, essays, and poster and verbal presentations.

    As part of the investigation into the students learning experiences as undergraduates, their perceptions of the influences of undertaking a range of assessment activities were explored. The aspects of assessment considered were intentions when undertaking assessment, the processes involved in preparing and executing assessment activities and learning from these experiences. The influences of receiving grades for and feedback on assessment were also investigated.

    Seventeen students from the 2000 cohort participated in the study. Individual semi-structured interviews took place on five occasions at intervals during their four years of study. A phenomenographic approach was used to analyse the transcriptions made of the tape-recorded interviews.

    The finding that success in assessment activities is a primary intention is not unexpected. However, the results also identified perceptions and behaviours which posit positive learning outcomes from undertaking these activities, both in terms of the material covered and the assessment processes themselves. The students did not approach assessment merely as a hurdle to be overcome, but demonstrated a strong desire to gain useful learning from the process. There was also consistent evidence that they learned from their experiences and took this forward when undertaking similar activities later during the programme.

    A dearth of comparative research on students with similar backgrounds makes it difficult to help establish whether the results of this study are similar to those for other learners or not. However, these findings support the argument that students from non-standard backgrounds have both the ability and desire to obtain as much as possible from their involvement in higher education (Richardson, 1994).

    The implications of these findings in relation to the backgrounds and future roles of these students as health professionals and lifelong learners will be considered in addition to the scope and nature of the findings themselves.


    • Biggs, J (2003) Teaching for quality learning at university (2 nd edition) Buckingham, Open University Press
    • Richardson, J T E (1994) Mature students in higher education: 1 A literature survey on approaches to studying Studies in Higher Education 19 (3): 309 - 325