Challenging Assessment: What did the Fourth Biennial EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference mean by that?

There was a good blend of papers and delegates from 18 countries at this Conference which was set in Potsdam beside a beautiful lake.   Most of the delegates stayed in the same hotel which facilitated time for informal discussions which were indeed most enjoyable and we could take shelter during a rainy August.  

As at any conference there is always a hot topic which was assessment for learning and how to provide useful feedback was on a lot of peoples’ minds. The term feedback itself was in dispute with some researchers favouring the term feed forward (Dai Hounsell)  but perhaps what was more interesting was not the terminology but the appropriateness and timeliness of the responses given by tutors to the students. I was delighted to see that researchers such as Margaret Price, Karen Handley and Berry O’Donovan in their paper on feedback, together with Sue Bloxham and Liz Campbell from the University of Cumbria, were emphasising that feedback should be seen as embedded within an ongoing dialogue.  Their presentations are available in the book of abstracts. This notion of promoting a dialogue between student and tutor is one which Stuart Watt  and myself have been progressing with our development of OpenMentor   and Open Comment.  Both these systems provide automated feedback to the user and lets them know what they didn’t know! 

The three Plenary Lectures provided three different vignettes into current thinking about assessment. Eckhard Klieme  discussed a number of pertinent issues that impinged upon educational measurement which is of particular interest to all those involved in PISA testing. His presentation was entitled ‘Assessment, grading and instruction: Understanding the context of educational measurement’.  Of particular interest was Ruth Leitch’s topic which informed us about children’s rights, as enshrined in European law, with respect to the assessment process.  It was Dylan Wiliam’s Plenary which closed the conference and was aptly named ‘When is assessment learning-oriented?’  He interestingly challenged the notion of formative assessment per se and has devised a new definition with Paul Black which they hope will be published in a paper in 2009.  They state:

 “An assessment functions formatively when evidence about student achievement elicited by the assessment is interpreted and used to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions that would have been made in the absence of that evidence.”

 The emphasis here of course is upon instruction but shouldn’t a definition include a subsequent action from the student?

This conference did not solely address forms of electronic feedback and assessment but participants‘ papers which focused in this area were invited to submit their contributions to a special issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology  which I am editing.  It should be available in March 2009, Volume 40, No. 2. So watch this space!


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