[RE]conceptualising assessment within a Higher Education Curriculum
The purpose of this study is to render a nuanced perspective of the nature of assessment practices and perspectives of lecturers in higher education and the extent to which such practices are in agreement with the policy changes that underpin a shift from a behaviourist to a more socio-constructivist teaching and learning approach. Thus the main objective for the formulation of a research question for the study, which looks beyond the immediate practices of assessment, is to consider what the nature of assessment would be if providing students with a firm foundation for learning. The main question of the enquiry is: To what extent, if any, could assessment be (re)conceptualised to overcome the standards-based versus student-centred dualism in a higher education context? Influencing institutional assessment policy necessitates conceptualising assessment in terms of the individual lecturer’s perspective as well as in terms of the intentions of the institution (NWU - Potchefstroom campus). This approach acknowledges the lecturer’s perspective, but also directs attention to the concerns of the institution as well as to possible resulting action. Hopefully, it will address the problem of the fragmented and isolated perspective of standards-based approaches to assessment. The study focuses on the formative and summative assessment practices in the eight faculties of the NWU (Potchefstroom campus), in order to analyse and understand the actions of and interaction between various role players that occur in differing contexts. Student-centred learning is an adaptation of a socio-cultural approach to learning that elaborates on and revises an earlier conceptualisation (behaviourist and constructivist) of assessment. The research is localised in an interpretive paradigm for analysis, in which human action is studied from an “insider’s perspective” (Babbie & Mouton, 2001:53), according to a case study research design to gain a comprehensive understanding of the assessment practices of the different faculties at the Potchefstroom campus of the NWU, as well as to ascertain the meaning of assessment to participants in the process. The key problem in assessment, revealed by the literature review, is the dualism between the alternative student-centred assessment approach to enhance learning and the standards-based assessment approach that demands institutional improvement and accountability. This research also confirms how standards-based assessment will always drive out student-centred assessment, should they be in opposition to one another. The latter is clearly illustrated in the assessment practices and perspectives at the NWU (Potchefstroom campus) that are still dominated by standards-based approaches, in which norm-referenced and summative assessment have secured a foothold. This study suggests a (re)conceptualisation of assessment by merging standards-based (rigorous, but less relevant) with student-centred (relevant, but less rigorous) assessment practices. Such a merging entails a reconfiguration of lecturers’ and students’ roles and identities from adversarial to synergistic, guided by a model that respects the differences between the two approaches and simultaneously reinforces their joint commitment to a shared mission. The endeavour to (re)conceptualise assessment in its totality - within the complex interrelated teaching- and learning-related activities necessitates (re)curriculating, (re)culturing, (re)structuring as well as (re)training of lecturers.
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