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Assessment has always been prominent in both research and practice in all sectors across the world. Its complex and problematic nature is due in part to the different purposes it is required to fulfil which broadly speaking could be described as: diagnostic used to make some judgments about students’ existing abilities; formative, more commonly known as assessment for learning (Black & Wiliam,1998); summative which is intended to certify students’ achievements, and, evaluative, as a measure of quality of an institution, teaching programme or individual teacher (Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, 2010). Such a variety of purposes delineates what Ecclestone (2001) has neatly described as political (accountability, quality assurance) and pedagogical imperatives and this has proved to be, in our view, the essential dilemma. Do we design assessment to maintain standards and demonstrate levels of achievement or do we design assessment to help our students learn? This question also has an impact on our understandings and use of feedback.
In this paper we will align with the ISL theme by presenting findings from over 20 years of research into assessment and feedback in the UK higher education sector, which has involved 34 studies. In so doing we will show how the research has taken us from a concentration on improving student performance to that of looking at the whole issue from the lecturers’ perspectives. Our theoretical concept is taken from Biggs (1994) argument that learning takes place in a system, and that if you want to change one component of that system, all the other components have to change. In this paper we will argue that taking a systemic approach to assessment and feedback, while making perfect sense in theory can fail in practice because there are systems within systems and in practical terms we cannot take account of, or influence them all. In this context, we will suggest that a more useful and inclusive approach is to think of assessment, feedback and its relation to learning as a timeline continually influenced by external movements (e.g AfL, NSS, QAA) which will go on developing. Sometimes the theoretical underpinnings of such factors can be questioned and challenged ( see for example Taras, 2010 on assessment for learning, Hattie, 2009 on constructivism). In this timeline we will highlight from our own research five major themes which were catalysed by a very early study which clearly demonstrated a mismatch between students' and lecturers’ perceptions of what counts as a good essay (Norton, 1990). From this original finding we have carried out research focused on: 1)efforts to improve essay writing; 2) students' perceptions of fairness in assessment; 3) lecturers' perceptions and practices in assessment; 4) new lecturers’ perceptions of assessment design, and, 5) experienced lecturers’ beliefs about how assessment and feedback links with the learning process. We will end with a discussion of how ongoing research and scholarship is necessary to meet future challenges in assessment and feedback in the next twenty years.