Birgit den Outer

  • Teaching staff experiences of assessment in academic communities

    Birgit den Outer and Karen Handley, Oxford Brookes University

    Research seminar

    Themes: faculty development methods and/or strategies

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 16.00 - 17.00 in room G60

    Academic staff need a shared understanding of assessment criteria before they can effectively apply those criteria and communicate them to students (Rust et al. 2003). This understanding develops during a complex and ongoing process best examined within a wider cultural and social context (Havnes and McDowell, 2008). Explicit and carefully-defined assessment criteria are important, but not sufficient to establish a shared understanding of what they mean in a particular community of practice. Furthermore, a number of simultaneous processes may adversely affect the coherence and efficacy of an assessment community and the application of criteria and standards (Orrell 2008, Rust et al. 2003, Ecclestone 2001, Saunders and Davis 1998, Roberts 2006). This previous research has emphasised the ‘environmental’ or ‘situational’ aspects of learning assessment standards in academic communities.

    However, we are arguing that to gain further insights into how a shared understanding is developed or impeded from the perspective of academic community members, the individual narrative needs to take centre stage. What personal story underlies a particular understanding of assessment standards? And what is the relationship between these stories and trajectories of becoming members of an academic community? Within the broader context of combining notions of ‘lived experience’ with a developmental approach, our particular focus is on the interplay between perspectives on assessment standards of those new to a particular academic community and the social context in which these standards are experienced, over time. In practice this means observing the journey of academic newcomers and how they conceptualise and articulate the stages in their process of becoming skilled assessors  (drawing on developmental models such as adult skills acquisition as described in Dreyfus, 2004, and trajectories of engagement as described in Knight et al, 2007). What triggers shifts in understanding? How are specific stages of understanding described? Perhaps more importantly, how do participants experience circumstances in which understanding is obstructed?

    These questions were explored in an ongoing small-scale research project using audio diaries as an innovative data collection method, whereby newcomers to academic communities recorded their experience of encounters with formal or informal assessment practice in their work environment, as well as more traditional interviewing methods.

    Findings from our exploratory research, as presented in our paper, indicate the importance of a vision of a becoming, i.e. becoming part of an academic community as opposed to remaining on the margins. They also suggest that the extent to which these visions of becoming have developed is linked to particular academic trajectories: for instance, permanently employed members of staff view their academic futures differently to associates; PhD students on studentships consider their path differently to that of PhD students who are self-financed. Whatever the trajectory, what the different categories of newcomer have in common is that they employ assessment criteria within an academic community where they share the same recipients of their assessment practice: students. Remaining on the margins carries with it certain risks: a position of non-responsibility could be adopted, not responsible for the learning of students, nor for their own learning or development.


    • Dreyfus, Stuart E., 2004, The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skills Acquisition, Bulletin of Science Technology Society, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp.177-181.
    • Ecclestone, Kathryn (2001) “I know a 2:1 when I see it”: understanding criteria for degree classifications in franchised university programmes’, Journal of Further and Higher Education, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 301 - 313.
    • Havnes, Anton and McDowell, Liz (eds.), 2008, Balancing Dilemmas in Assessment and Learning in Contemporary Education.  London: Routledge.
    • Knight, Peter; Baume, David; Tait, Jo; Yorke, Mantz, 2007, ‘Enhancing part-time teaching in higher education: a challenge for institutional policy and practice’, Higher Education Quarterly,, Vol. 61, No. 4, pp. 420-438.
    • Orrell, Janice, 2008, ‘Assessment beyond belief: the cognitive process of grading, in Havnes and McDowell (eds.), Balancing Dilemmas in Assessment and Learning in Contemporary Education. London: Routledge.
    • Roberts, J. (2006) ‘Limits to communities of practice’, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 43, No. 3, pp. 623-639.
    • Rust, C.; Price, M.; O’Donovan, R. 2003, ‘Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 147 – 164.
    • Saunders, Mark N. K. and Davis, Susan M. (1998) ‘The use of assessment criteria to ensure consistency of marking: some implications for good practice’, Quality Assurance in Education, vol. 6, no. 3, pp 162-171.