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Assessment Criteria Grid for Use on Work-Based Learning and Profession-Related Programmes at HE Levels 2 & 3

Catherine Zara, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Warwick.


Foundation Degrees have been devised with the intention of meeting intermediate skills needs across all sectors of the economy. They are a government policy initiative intended to prepare students for employment in a specific area where there is a demand for higher technical and associated professional skills. The five essential features of a foundation degree as set out by HEFCE and the DfEE are: employer involvement; the development of knowledge and skills; application of skills in the workplace; credit accumulation and transfer; and progression – within work and to an honours degree. A foundation degree is the equivalent of two years full time undergraduate study and the award is made at HE Level 2.

This case study relates to the Foundation Degree in Post Compulsory Education and Training run by the Centre for Lifelong Learning. It is a part-time degree programme designed specifically for practitioners who work as lecturers in FE Colleges and educators and trainers in adult and community education services. Its aim is to advance knowledge and understanding of the sector and the profession. All students must currently teach in the PCET sector and the entry qualification is the Certificate in Education in PCET (120 credits at HE Level 1).

This case study relates to the programme at HE Level 2 (120 credits) which consists of four modules and an Advancing Professional Practice tutorial programme. The degree comprises three compulsory modules in Contemporary Issues in PCET; Reflecting on Practice in PCET and Researching PCET plus a fourth optional module, currently either Managing Resources in PCET or Learners with Learning Difficulties and Disabilities.

The curriculum for the FdA is designed in collaboration with our partner colleges. Students are taught at the colleges by college-based lecturers who also act as mentors to support work-based learning. There is a Course Manager in each college and an overall Course Director (the author) based at the University. University staff second mark all assessed work and engage with students through SSLCs and with college colleagues through Course Development and Consortium working groups.

Aims and Rationale

A key purpose of our teaching enhancement activities has been to address the integration of academic with work-based learning on this new profession-related award. A specific aim has been to provide tutors and students with appropriate and relevant guidelines and criteria for the assessment of students’ work.

This case study outlines the evaluation and redesign of the assessment guidelines and criteria following a pilot programme at Evesham College and their implementation and ongoing evaluation at City College Coventry.

The first cohort of students for this award, on the pilot programme, was assessed using guidelines and criteria used for Levels 2 and 3 of degree programmes in the Faculty of Social Studies at the University. The key criteria for judging the merit of students’ work were Comprehension, Analysis, Critique and Presentation. The impetus to create a new or substantially revised set of assessment guidelines and criteria promoting an integrated approach to academic and work-based/ profession-related learning came from an emerging understanding of how the existing academic criteria only partially addressed the work being asked for and produced by students on this programme.

Qualifications which incorporate work-based (Brown, Bull and Pendlebury, 1997:193) and profession-related (Eraut, 1994:199) learning are areas of growth in provision for the Centre and it was felt that investing time in an initiative which substantially tackled this anomaly would be worthwhile as the principles and methods established would be applicable elsewhere.

Needs analysis, Design, Planning and initial Evaluative processes

For the pilot cohort, course team members at the FE College and at CLL discussed the marks they felt should be awarded to students for their assessed work and in doing so raised issues regarding the interpretation of assessment guidelines and criteria. General issues requiring further discussion and resolution were brought to course team meetings. Tutors initially adapted and accommodated their individual marking practices for written work to make the original grid fit [see Fig 1 ] . But they also began to raise issues about their understanding and interpretation of the criteria and the fitness for purpose of the guidelines and criterion descriptors. The initial process of adaptation and accommodation can be viewed as the kind of cognitive learning (after Piaget) which takes place when people desire or feel compelled to conform to an institutional norm. These norms were challenged periodically when a student or a tutor felt that the existing assessment criteria did not always clearly indicate what was being expected of the student. One issue was how work-based learning could be articulated for the benefit of assessors and examiners not present to observe its development and impact in the work place. Another was how to demonstrate that such learning engaged students in analysis and critique at HE Level 2.

It was agreed that students’ written work would benefit from being assessed in a way which further enhanced the integration of work-based and academic learning and the course team continued to experiment with design approaches to address this perceived need. In so doing they were themselves engaged in an ‘action learning’ process which was indicative of the approach to all aspects of design and planning of the curriculum and delivery of this new and innovative programme of study undertaken in partnership between the University and its partner Colleges.

These issues were initially discussed during the design of assessment tasks (essays on work-related themes; seminar presentations; research projects; unseen examinations and the advancing professional practice portfolio); tackled in more detail after the blind double marking process; articulated more clearly during the process of mark reconciliation between tutors and explored further in course team meetings and staff development workshops. When the FdA was first launched it had been deemed important to use the same criteria being used elsewhere in the University because of the need to standardise levels of attainment and quite possibly also because of the implicit issue of parity of esteem. Although we anticipated that the existing assessment guidelines and criteria would raise some concerns, we needed to discover what these might be and use this experience as the basis for analysing what to keep and what to change.

The external examiner was made aware of the emerging debate in an open and transparent manner from the design of assessment tasks through to their final examination was professionally engaged in sharing his perspectives. At the exam board in Summer 2004 emerging issues were noted and the external examiner agreed that it would be good practice to review the assessment criteria and revise them so that they explicitly addressed concerns raised.

As the next new cohort of students had already begun the programme in April 2004, a decision had to be made either to leave the amendments for a further academic year, or to go ahead with them and negotiate their introduction with the students concerned. The author worked with two colleagues during the summer vacation period on a redesign of the guidelines and criteria descriptors and these were introduced, with students’ permission, in the autumn term of 2004 [see Case Study Fig 2 ] The main changes were as follows:

i) the introduction of a reference to FHEQ levels for each degree classification

ii) the introduction of two new categories of high first and low fail – to encourage a better distribution of marks across the whole scale (see comments below about ongoing issues relating to this)

iii) changing the terms used to describe key criteria from Comprehension; Analysis; Critique and Presentation to Knowledge of Module Content; Application of Knowledge; Evaluation through reflection, analysis and critique; and Personal and Professional Development Planning. The change in terminology was highly significant. The initial separating out of Module Knowledge and the Application of Knowledge to Practice/Performance acknowledges that students often initially see ‘theoretical’ knowledge and their own professional practice as entirely different ‘ways of knowing’. The third band, Evaluation through Reflection, Analysis and Critique, invites tutors and students to tease out ways of articulating judgement-making – both professional and intellectual (eg. Judgements about what ‘good practice’ or ‘useful and valid theory’ actually amounts to). It also offers a synthesising sequence through which new understandings can be demonstrated. The fourth band was an entirely new invention aimed at encouraging tutors and students to take account of the continuing professional development aspects of the programme at each moment of assessment, a kind of interim stock-taking process. An examination of students’ work at the end of this cohort shows that they have availed of this in a particularly explicit and useful way through their Advancing Professional Practice Portfolio and in their work for the Reflecting on Practice module.

Evaluative methodology

“If we wish to discover the truth about an educational system, we must look into its assessment procedures. What student qualities and achievements are actively valued and rewarded by the system?.The spirit and style of student assessment defines the de facto curriculum” (Rowntree, 1987:1).

The methods for evaluating the extent to which this has enhanced teaching and learning have been through the normal student and tutor feedback and collaborative working practices between college and university based colleagues and the external examiner and including the final examination of students’ work. These have included Course team meetings, SSLCs, Meetings of the FD PCET Consortium, dedicated staff development workshops and the Board of Examiners. In addition to this individual students and tutors who experienced both assessment approaches were invited to comment on their relative merit. It is important to note that we feel there is still much to learn about how to make the most out of this approach.

Evaluation has been an iterative process of reflection, analysis and critique as indicated already in the description above of the needs analysis, design and planning phases. The guiding principle is strongly influence by the work of Rowntree which has already informed research into issues of assessment published by the author (Edwards, 2000; Edwards Zara, 2005) and remains influential in this context. The principle guiding the revision of assessment criteria was that of equal value or parity of esteem, for work-based and academic learning leading to a clearer articulation of how they might be integrated. The redesign of assessment guidelines and criteria was followed up with a staff development workshop for University and College staff involved in teaching on the programme and assessing student work plus those planning to teach it in future. The author and colleagues led a discussion about the debates and practices which had led to the changes and participants explored different perspectives and interpretations of the new grid. This was followed by an exercise in which all participants marked two student assignments. Participants then worked in pairs, modelling the double marking process in which markers discuss and justify their proposed mark and make any adjustments as a result of the discussion to arrive at an agreed grade. Issues raised were discussed in the whole group and further work was undertaken by the author to amend and improve the grid. This was sent to the external examiner and to all present at the workshop for further comment and amendment. This took place before students were asked if they would accept its adoption onto the programme. A second workshop was organised at a later stage and included colleagues teaching on a different FdA and another profession-related programme in CLL.

Additional outcomes

Three other programmes in the University of Warwick have subsequently shown an interest in adopting and adapting this approach.

  • The course team for the Foundation Degree in Community Enterprise and Development is planning to adapt this approach for its work-based learning module in the next academic session.
  • The director of the PGCE in Classroom-based Enquiry at the Institute of Education has likewise redrafted the assessment criteria for that programme for use in the next academic session. His rationale for adopting our approach is that the existing academic framework with its sole emphasis on traditional academic skills is inappropriate for a programme where the learning outcomes include critical engagement with and improvement of practice. He cited Barnett’s concept of ‘real world knowing’ (Barnett; 1994) as one of the key tenets of a programme for aspiring school teachers and that the design of and terminology used in this assessment grid indicates the process students go through in order to arrive at a synthesis of professional and academic knowledge.
  • Tutors on the Open Studies Certificate in Counselling have indicated that this new design and approach has positively enhanced their understanding of how to explain and assess ‘critique’ to students on a programme where interpersonal and intellectual skills development have equal importance. For example, the third column on the grid ‘Evaluation through reflection, analysis and critique’ indicates a) that the students abilities in ‘judgement-making’ in learning (which critique traditionally entails) can either be concept led or practice led depending on where the student is in the deductive or inductive learning ‘loop’, and b) that the expectation is that the student will be able to offer an account of how reflections on developments in their practical skills inform their insights into theory and/or that reflections on theory inform aspects of their interpersonal skills (here an example of work-based learning).
Continuation Strategy – further evaluative activities

The success of the new assessment guidelines and criteria descriptors at Level 2 has led to their adaptation for use at Level 3 for the new B.A. (Honours) degree in Post Compulsory Education and Training which in turn will need evaluating.

Evaluation of Formative assessment – conversations and feedback between tutors and students

We will never again be in a position where we have a cohort who has experienced both approaches to assessment but if enough interest in this is shown within the University to warrant taking the time and resources for further rigorous evaluation we could plan comprehensive interviews with students and tutors at partner colleges and/ or a questionnaire to solicit the views and emerging understandings and practices within future cohorts. Regardless of this, methods of and criteria for assessment will remain key items for discussion, review and course evaluation as per our normal practice.

Evaluation of Summative assessment

The External Examiner for the FD PCET suggests we continue to evaluate the use of the criteria at HE Level 2 particularly in relation to the ‘bunching’ of grades within the 2:2 and 2:1 bands. However, since he also noted that this issue of the distribution of marks was a general one nationally for undergraduate programmes we feel that radical changes in summative assessment practice will need to be debated in University-wide forums so that this programme does not appear to be out of step with institutional norms, a measure which could, in some arenas, be wrongly attributed to the vocational nature of the degree thus raising issues of parity of esteem and potentially adversely affecting its current status. One challenge is to continue to investigate what we might mean by parity of esteem for vocational and academic learning in an institution primarily devoted to excellence in the latter. For some this might represent a danger “that amidst the concerns for quality assurance, training of university teachers and raising of standards, we forget an important aspect of the most valuable learning: we can never be quite sure where it will lead” (Rowland, 2000:1). We have yet to determine how we will successfully address this. One possibility would be to award a much higher grade to a student who has undertaken a work-place development of much greater magnitude or impact than another student even though their level of conceptual understanding and sophistication may be very similar.

References and literature informing the initiative

Barnett, Ronald (1994) The Limits of Competence: Knowledge, Higher Education and Society, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press

Brown, G with J. Bull and M. Pendlebury, (1997) Assessing student learning in Higher Education, London: Routledge

Edwards, C (2000) ‘Assessing what we value and valuing what we assess?’ in Studies in Continuing Education, Vol 22 No 2, pp201 -217

Edwards Zara, C (2005) ‘Evaluation and Assessment’, Chapter in Wilson, JP (ed) Human Resource Development, London: Kogan Page, pp 407 – 422

Eraut, M (1994) Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence, London:Falmer Press

Poell, R (1998) Organizing Work-related Learning Projects, Nigmegen: Katholieke Universiteit

Rowland, S (2000) The Enquiring University Teacher, Buckingham: SHRE and Open University Press

Rowntree, D (1987) Assessing Students: how shall we know them? London: Kogan Page


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