Alasdair White is a senior member of the faculty at a business school in Brussels as well as being a well-known consultant and author on the subject of performance management.

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to assessment in an academic environment: there are the ‘knowledge testers’ and the ‘skills developers’. While both are right in their own way, it is only through combining their approaches that a sustainable and performance-enhancing assessment process emerges.

Some recent research shows that performance measurement is the best way to boost performance and effectiveness – and this confirms the empirical evidence that is so well understood by those of us involved in performance management and so little understood, it seems, by some in academic circles. To boost performance we first need to benchmark the current level and then monitor development as we apply performance-enhancing processes to it.

In the early stages of academic development – the primary and secondary school levels – the process of education is to provide the pupil with data which, when contextualised, can be converted to information and, to a great extent, the pupil is expected to remember this as it forms the knowledge base for their future adult life. There is little focus on ‘academic skills’ (the application of knowledge within context), as the pupil must first establish a foundation from which to work. The assessment process at this stage must, therefore, of necessity focus on measuring the retention of information – in other words, ‘test what they know’.

Towards the end of secondary school, usually at around the age of 16 years, the focus of the educational process has to change from pure information collection and retention towards the application of that information within a context so that it can become embedded as knowledge itself. This is the initial development of fundamental but rather basic academic skills. If the pupil is heading on towards tertiary education at a college or university, these fledgling academic skills are the foundation on which that tertiary educational career is based. Clearly, therefore, the assessment process also needs to change from the measurement of retained information to the measurement of academic skills such as research, academic essay writing, the process of analysis, the weighing up of the evidence and the drawing of safe conclusions.

When the pupil becomes a tertiary-level student, this process must continue so that by the time they graduate with a Bachelors degree they have fully mastered the academic skills and can apply them rigorously, consistently and successfully. The assessment process at the tertiary level must, of necessity, focus much less on the retention of information and much more on skills development and the student’s performance in applying them.

If the tertiary assessment process is properly developed then the results act as a feedback loop for the students so that they can determine what skills they are weak in and can focus on the development of those specific skills. Similarly, the results can act as a feedback loop for the lecturers so that they can modify their lecturing/teaching to ensure that students have developed the right skills by specific milestones in their tertiary educational progress. If lecturers take the time to analyse the students’ results, they can determine whether they are teaching the right things at the right time and in the right way. Perhaps we should acknowledge that when a student fails a course, a programme or a degree in a university environment this is as much a result of inappropriate teaching methodology and misaligned assessment processes as it is of student ability, or the lack thereof.

Unfortunately, many tertiary education curricula are modularised and the courses are independent and self-contained elements in which the lecturer has to deliver specific and defined bodies of information. This tends to apply pressure to the assessment process and push it in a retrograde direction so that it focuses on ‘information (or knowledge) retention’. Of course, such a process is easier from the lecturer’s perspective as it requires less time to mark and, in situations in which group sizes are large, this can be a critical if undesirable factor.

But this has an unhelpful outcome as far as the students are concerned: it pushes them into retrograde learning behaviours in which they ‘study for exams’ rather than develop their skills. This, in turn, adversely impacts their performance in terms of academic skill development. The result, as often seen in university environments today, is for students to be performing like school pupils and failing to achieve academic maturity. If this is not rectified, then the ultimate outcome will be students with a great deal of information in their minds but who lack the skills to apply it as knowledge – and thus they are of little use to future employers most of whom want to employ graduates who can think and analyse and draw conclusions rather than just ‘know a lot of stuff but not how to apply it’. Indeed, if this situation persists, tertiary educational institutes will be failing both their students and society as a whole and that is the start of a vicious downward spiral.

If the institutions are getting caught in this vicious spiral then the logical outcome will be that their graduating students will find it harder and harder to gain appropriate employment – they will not be ‘fit for purpose’ – the institutions’ reputation will suffer and they will find themselves facing a declining number of applications for places. In the end, courses, degree programmes and even institutions will have to close. This will then make for greater competition for places at the remaining institutions resulting in an overall decline in student numbers to the general detriment of society.

It is, therefore, in the enlightened self-interest of all tertiary education institutions to refocus their assessment procedures to ensure that graduating students have the essential academic skills and know how to apply them – this means that lecturers must resist the temptation to assess on a ‘retained information’ basis and must demand that progress is made in academic skills. One way this might be achieved is for the institutions to more clearly define what skills have to be practised and displayed at each level and to rigorously apply these standards and benchmarks. This will require a coordinated assessment strategy within the institution with the acquisition and delivery of these standard skills at each level being prerequisites for progress to the next level. An example of this is, of course, is the dissertation that most undergraduates have to write – failure in the dissertation module means a failure to graduate. Finding someway of doing this at each level in a degree programme must be an imperative if the assessment process is to drive performance and thus deliver the desired outcome of students well equipped for the outside world.

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