Yesterday I was giving a lecture on ultrafiltration where I derived a mathematical equation for the time required to ultrafilter a solution – I know, exciting stuff. I’ve been doing this problem for years. The thing about this equation is that it can’t be solved with simple algebra – you have to use an approximate method known as numerical integration. Now if you are to do this by hand it’s a laborious, time-consuming process. So in the past I used to simply put the integral aside and resort to an empirical approximation that could be implemented in a couple of minutes on a calculator. It was all very unsatisfying.
Now, however, my students can just go to WolframAlpha.com and solve the integral – more or less exactly – with one line of very simple code. It makes the whole process of deriving the equation much more meaningful. The point is that it makes absolutely no sense for me to examine this topic by a pen-and-paper final exam. That would be to examine obsolete methods. It is far better to use continuous assessment in which students can use their computers or whatever advanced tools are appropriate to their discipline. So point number 1 is the following:
- Advances in technology make continuous assessment essential because new technologies change disciplines.
The second aspect to this issue is that I can mark this type of quantitative assessment completely impartially and objectively. So point number 2 is
- Continuous assessment can contain elements that can be marked in a completely objective way.
Yesterday I also had a long discussion with one of my final year students. She was having a lot of difficulty putting her lab report together and it took a good deal of my time to get her to a place where the report would be of a decent standard. When I mark her report, however, I will take into account the amount of help I have given her. She may produce a report that is 2.1 standard but only because of my considerable input. Marking this report is then a fairly nuanced process. Likewise when I examine my five final year research theses I will not only assess what appears on the written page but also make an assessment of how well the student performed in actually carrying out the project. So point number 3 is
- The best person to assess project work is the teacher.
So what about the plagiarism issue? Worries about plagiarism assume that the work done towards a continuously assessed assignment will be done off-site, i.e., at home where all sorts of input from parents, siblings and friends will totally undermine the academic integrity of the process. But who says project work has to happen at home? Can it not happen as part of active learning in the classroom (with obvious resource implications)? So point number 4 is:
- Project work can be done in class, free of the effects of plagiarism.
But then you might say that it is simply impossible to be completely objective about essay-type or project-type work. Marks will be challenged by students and irate parents. Perhaps they will but at third level marks are now routinely challenged by students, if not parents. It’s a healthy development. A simple way of preparing for this is to have a second-reader system and perhaps some oversight by external examiners. So point 5 is:
- There are well established ways of dealing with subjectivity in marking.
I think teachers need to buy into school-based assessment but they should do so on the basis that practitioners will have a central role in the design of new syllabi. The experience in the UK is that when curriculum design is left to the education theorists it leads to the proliferation of faddish, un-validated modes of teaching, with a strong, ideology-driven tendency to favour method and process of over knowledge and skill. This has led to widespread discontent in the teaching profession there.
School-based assessment is going to happen and the sooner teachers get involved the better.