Assessment is the Curriculum… or is it?

I have been dealing with young people for most of my adult life, and I do not recognise them in the demonisation they are receiving today. I was appalled by the UC Davis incident last week. I couldn’t believe the preparations made for the student march earlier this month (rubber bullets?)

I think of the references to students heard in meetings I go to at the University. They are viewed by some as always trying to beat the system, generally untrustworthy, and trying to get away with doing as little as possible to get a degree.

I know hundreds of current and past students, and they are not as described above. Many of the students I know come to University to learn. Too many lecturers ascribe other reasons for students entering HE.

It was Ramsden (2003) who articulated what many in education think today when he wrote “…from our students’ point of view, assessment always defines the actual curriculum.” Meaning, that students will only learn what the have to in order to pass the class. We also hear that the majority of students only come to university to get a degree -> that will lead to a good job.

For a long time, I used to believe this, but that’s not my experience with the real students I deal with every day. And, that’s not what the actual evidence says. The three pillars of the assessment defining the curriculum view are works done in the late 60’s and early 70’s: Becker, Geer and Hughes (1968), Snyder (1971), and Miller and Parlett (1974). In Miller & Parlett’s study, 5/30 participants could be definitely put in the category of focusing on assessment (not overwhelming evidence by any standards). Snyder concluded that students are generally assessment driven, but doesn’t provide enough detailed evidence in the study to really support the statement. Becker, Geer & Hughes did find that the majority of students in their study were assessment (or grade-point) driven, but concluded that their sample was unusual, and doubted they would find the same thing with a different group of students.

A few years ago, I (along with one of my colleagues) presented some finding about the second point (students only being interested in degrees). We found that there was no clear cut answer to why students study. It was almost as if there are as many reasons and motivations as there are students. Difficult to make any sweeping statements about why students were studying and what their motivations were.

Not the kind of evidence upon which to build the caricature of a student so widely accepted today.

I find that students are still looking for learning. They want to know and understand the world. They want us (the rest of us) to treat them like adults, forgive their foibles and help them become something they can be proud of. They work hard, they do what we ask, and they want to contribute.

Too many lecturers are almost afraid of students and what they represent. Just treat them as co-academics and they will act like co-academics. It is time for us to stop demonising them and help them become who they really want to be.


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