Asa Lindberg Sand

  • Researching assessment – in the dividing line between tests and assignments, formal rules and regulations and the individual student’s examination process

    Åsa Lindberg Sand and Thomas Olsson
    Lund University, Sweden

    Session 3c

    Tuesday 4 September 2007, 10.10-11.10

    Research seminar

    Themes: Internationalisation of the curriculum, Widening participation, Better practitioners

    In a project at the Faculty of Engineering at Lund University we research the interplay between the formal examination system and the development of students’ and teachers’ work in the actual examination process. In the conceptual frame-work we combine different strands of social practice theory and view formal aspects of assessments as Classification Systems (Bowker & Star, 1999) working as boundary objects in relation to educational Communities of Practice (Wenger, 1998).

    We define an examination system as all the assessments delivered in a course or in a programme together with formal rules and regulations. This formal system is channelling the interaction between students and teachers. By the examination process we mean all student and teacher activities that are emanating from or directed towards the examination system. Finally, the teaching and learning process is the totality of educational interaction between students, teachers and all other involved participants.

    In this session we will discuss relationships between the examination system and the examination process and the critical consequences for student learning that become evident. Many important aspects appear and although our research focuses on modularised engineering programmes important generic questions are addressed.

    We used the theoretical frame-work to analyse empirical data consisting of documents and interviews with students and teachers. Important results so far reveal an examination system that consists of a complicated and entangled network of different tests and assignments. This system has expanded during recent years but the expansion is uneven and the consequences are mostly invisible. We also found a false picture of the pace and progress of the examination process. Hidden and delayed effects of failure result as a consequence of the character of the examination system. The examination process and the examination system continuously diverge leaving practically each student with an individual examination process of his or her own. But the teaching and learning process proceeds as usual; lecture halls are filled with students, training sessions and laboratory tasks are set up, concluded and assessed.

    We conclude that the character of the examination process is not educationally designed. Instead it is an emergent phenomenon including invisible and unintended consequences for student learning. The delayed and hidden effects of failure function to continuously separate the examination process from the teaching and learning process, making student progress an invisible trajectory, while the teaching and learning process on the surface is unaffected. The over-all character of the examination process then could be summarised as having a stable and strongly individualising, elite pattern.

    In this session we would also like to discuss our research in light of the ongoing Bologna process – especially how learning outcomes and grading systems affect assessment. In engineering programmes we assess courses (using complicated and entangled examination systems) but what about the student as an engineer? How can we focus the assessment more towards the entirety and not only assess a series of courses? A more holistic and competence based assessment would be desirable.


    • Bowker, G. C. & Star, S. L. (1999). Sorting Things Out. Classifications and its Consequences, Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press
    • Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press