500 Words, Student Fellow Reflections, Student Voice

A first look at Decolonising Assessment

This blog builds on BILT’s previous podcast on Preparing students for assessment and the work of my co-Student Fellows, Rhona and Sama, on decolonisation of the curriculum. Last week I attended and presented at the 16th BESA Annual International Conference entitled Educational Alternatives: Challenges and Possibilities, via Zoom of course. One presentation that particularly attracted my attention was on the topic of Racial Inequalities in Assessment Practices. In this presentation Dr Paul Campbell from the University of Leicester talked about white, black, and South Asian students’ perspectives on assessment practices from four subject areas within his university: biology, physics, law, and sociology.

Although decolonisation of the curriculum is becoming a hive of activity, there isn’t as much attention surrounding its sibling decolonisation of assessment, hence why this presentation captured my interest. Within this blog I will be talking about why some BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) students are cautious about some methods of assessment and how the reports recommendations for how we can remedy this. Whilst I am only going over the key headlines, and topics that I found personally interesting; I would recommend that you read the report from Dr Campbell and his colleagues, Dr Chloe Hawkins and Sadiyo Osman, for more details (particularly if your programme is undergoing re-validation). The report is available here.

Firstly, let’s talk about exams. All STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and law students expressed a preference for in-person and invigilated exams. Many felt that they knew what was expected of them from this method as they were used to exam writing at further education level. Whilst most STEM students expressed that they liked exams because they knew when to start revision, compared to coursework where they did not know when the best time to begin was and thus either started too early or too late. BAME STEM students particularly disliked coursework as they felt it was more subjective and because of this there was a greater potential for assessor bias. This concern for assessor bias was also present when talking about non-anonymous assessments (such as presentations). Whilst white sociology students enjoyed presentations, BAME students were sceptical. Black sociology students specifically felt that they had to adopt white middle-class culture and mannerisms during their presentation to secure a suitable mark.

In these paragraphs, I’ve listed two problems. The first being that STEM students don’t like coursework because they don’t know when to begin. To fix this issue we should begin to signpost students for when they should start to begin their assessments. This could be a date in a calendar based of the programme assessment heat map, or it could be a formative assessment that closely links to the summative (such as a short presentation of a literature review on the topic). This is particularly important for first year students as they can then use the formative as a starting block for their summative assessment.

To rectify the second issue, that BAME STEM students worry about assessor bias within their assessments, we need to begin modelling exercises. This could be live marking the students’ responses to a formative, or critically evaluating examples of previous scripts with the students’, such as the examples typically available to them. Whilst students know that the examples are ‘good’ they’re not always sure which attributes make one essay better than another. Modelling the marking process would help improve transparency and understanding of the marking criteria, and reduce suspicions of racial bias as students would be more certain about the marking methodology. In addition, it would also be useful to all students as a method of highlighting the change in rigor required between first, second and third years of study, as well as what would be required to gain a 1st, 2:1 or 2:2.

The report by Campbell, Hawkins and Osman also contains some useful insights on written and oral feedback which we will look into in the future continuing our series of blogs and podcasts on assessment.

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