On self-evaluation, continuous assessment, examinations and wine-coloured folders

by Professor Brian Boyd
Emeritus Professor of Education at Strathclyde University 

Amidst the current furore of the exam system, I’d like to propose an alternative process.

First, there should be self-evaluation based on criteria which are shared among the teacher and the class. The more learners understand the criteria for success, the better the learning. In fact, it promotes deep rather than surface learning. I would propose that self-evaluation be introduced into the learning process as early as possible and that as pupils make their way through their education journey from pre-5 to College, University, Apprenticeships and work, they continue to hone their self-evaluation skills.

Second, there should be continuous assessment undertaken by teachers as the pupils move through the system. Most of this will be of a formative kind, i.e. designed to help the pupils improve next time. Grades or marks out of 100 are of little value in this context. The purpose of assessment should be, in the main, to give the student insight into how s/he is doing and, importantly, what they need to do to improve.

Third, there should be examinations, but not necessarily as we currently know them. Traditional pen-and-paper exams have surely had their day as the main way of assessing learners and judging potential. Open book exams have been part of the assessment system in many countries. The student can bring into the exam hall an agreed course book which s/he can refer to as they try to solve a problem set by the examiner. In addition, in this digital age, surely there can be assessment online which does not require speed writing and which is lively and engaging into the bargain.

Now, what would be the practicalities of all of this? Some readers might remember National Records of Achievement which were introduced in the early 1990s and survived into the 2000s. They “failed” because Universities would not buy into them. So Universities have to come on board and be prepared to base their decisions about who gets into their courses on a wider range of information and not solely exam grades. The learners need to be encouraged to take ownership of their Records. And, notwithstanding the current wave of nostalgia for the wine-coloured multi-paged folders, they have to go digital.

Finally, there should be the ability to include evidence of achievements which have been gained outside school, for example, in the community, in national award schemes, in charitable work and other forms of volunteering, and so on.

If we can see assessment as an integral part of the learning process and not as an end point, we might be able to ascertain to what extent pupils have become successful learners, confident individuals, effective contributors and responsible citizens as set out in the original Curriculum for Excellence report.

So, let’s begin the debate.

This piece was originally published as a letter to The Herald on August 18, 2020.

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