Excluding those we mean to include: A discourse analysis of assessment tasks in English

Year: 2016

Author: Graham, Linda

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

In the effort to engage students more fully in practices of assessment, educators have sought to incorporate student perspectives through assessment strategies that ask students to reflect on their own responses to curriculum content. The study of English literature lends itself to the use of such strategies and this is evident in assessment tasks that ask students to provide a personal response to the literature under study. A further strategy aimed at engaging students more fully in practices of assessment is the provision of information designed to arm students with the knowledge of what they need to do to demonstrate their learning. This information may include (i) provision of dates/times the assessment is due, (ii) conditions under which both drafts and final tasks must be completed, (iii) descriptions of the learning context (unit focus) in which the assessment has been set and to which the assessment relates, (iv) explanations of vocabulary both used in the assessment task description and in the task being assessed, (v) an assessment rubric that maps output types with potential grades, (vi) the aim and purpose of the set assessment, (vii) the role that the student is to adopt in the work they produce, (viii) the audience to which the student must refer, (ix) the actual task that must be completed, (x) and the common curriculum elements to which the assessment relates. In this paper, I use a multi-layer approach to analyse a small sample of secondary school English assessment tasks to question whether these practices may work to exclude those we actually mean to include. For example, in the first layer of analysis, I consider how the provision of “helpful” information might contribute to visual complexity, making it harder for students to distinguish between important and unimportant information. In the second layer, I examine the requirement that students incorporate a personal response and consider how this may make the task more difficult than it needs to be, particularly for students who find it difficult to connect with literature. In my final layer of analysis, I consider whether the practices I describe may, in fact, work to corrupt the integrity of the task by distracting students from the core learning objectives (identifying, for example, the use and effect of emotive language in poetry), and/or reduce the space available for students to engage with these core learning objectives.