Assessing when we shouldn’t?

More crane buildingIn an earlier post I outlined the TED course I have recently developed and delivered with Tim Stratford and Martin Crapper.  Yesterday was the final session of this course when we handed out the end of course questionnaire.  Responses from students were all very helpful and mostly positive (a response is given here).  However, one point that came up several times as an area for improvement was the vagueness of the assessment criteria for the course.  Students didn’t have a clear idea about how their work was to be marked.

Laying down clear assessment criteria for this sort of course is a genuine problem. In many respects the value of the course is the chance to try things that may fail, to get things wrong the first time but get better on subsequent attempts, to develop individual thinking about the nature of engineering design and so on.  None of this is easy to mark in the usual way and in some respects putting marks on this sort thing encourages a cautious approach that detracts of the freedom to be creative and to learn through failure.  Despite this, University requirements (at least at Edinburgh) insist that all creadit bearing courses are marked – there is no possiblity of having a simple pass/fail criteria for engagement.

I think this is unfortunate.  Certainly some sort of ranking of academic ability is one role of a university but insisting that all learning should be numerically assessed is excessive and discourages certain sorts of highly educational activities.  The introduction of Innovative Learning Week at Edinburgh is a positive move away from assessing everything.  The next step should be to allow for some credit bearing, non-assessed courses.


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