Mind the Gap: Assessment practices within the context of UK Widening Participation

M. O'Doherty, C. Beaumont, L. Shannon

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


This paper reports on findings from research funded by the UK Higher Education Academy; the study aimed to explore staff and student perceptions of quality feedback within the context of transition between educational sectors. Whilst seminal research has been conducted on the assessment experience of students in schools (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Black et al, 2003) and universities (Hounsell, 2003), there are relatively few studies that investigate the impact of the former on the latter. This qualitative study makes this cross sector connection, presenting data collected across nine education institutions (three schools, sixth forms and universities respectively) on perceptions of assessment. As a result, our findings address a gap in the current literature, positioning first year undergraduate expectations of quality feedback within the context of their prior experience of formative assessment. Current theory conceptualises assessment as a dialogic process (Higgins et al, 2001) in which quality feedback is the most powerful single influence on student achievement (Hattie, 1987); therefore, the provision of quality feedback is perceived as a key requirement of effective teaching in higher education (Ramsden, 2003). In practice, lecturers often believe their feedback to be more useful than students do (Careless, 2006; Maclellan, 2001) and feedback has consistently been identified as the least satisfactory aspect of the student experience in UK universities (National Student Survey, 2007, 2006, 2005). As a consequence of this mis-match in staff and student perceptions, assessment in UK higher education is being challenged. Frameworks for good practice in assessment have been developed, but attempts to conceptualise quality feedback within the context of higher education have been positioned within a formative rather than a summative process (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004-5; Nicol & Mcfarlane-Dick, 2004; 2006). However, resource constraints coupled with a widening participation agenda of mass expansion in the UK have limited the opportunities for formative assessment to be practised (Yorke, 2003; Gibbs, 2007), At the same time, within the school sector a formative Assessment for Learning Culture (Assessment Reform Group, 1999) has been developed which means students experience a significant cultural gap in feedback practices between educational sectors. In particular, our findings reveal students perceive quality feedback as part of a dialogic, guidance process rather than a summative event. Conversely, in higher education concerns relating to the ‘dumbing down’ of Independent learning through spoonfeeding (Haggis, 2006) are leading to increasing tensions between the theory of good practice and the practice of assessment. This longitudinal study reports on the consequences of these conflicting expectations of guidance and independent learning for first year undergraduates and their tutors in three subject disciplines. These findings have informed recent initiatives to scaffold students’ autonomous learning through formative assessment and the presentation will provide an opportunity to discuss these interventions. Thus, the presentation of our cross sector findings aims not only to reframe the context of the debate challenging current assessment practices in UK higher education, but also to contribute to the re-conceptualisation of feedback practice for future learning (Hounsell, 2007; Boud & Falchikov, 2007).
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2008
EventFourth Biennial EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference - Berlin, Germany
Duration: 27 Aug 200829 Aug 2008


ConferenceFourth Biennial EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference


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