Student assessment task design in neo-liberalist times

Year: 2017

Author: McCormack, Silvia

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The purpose of this presentation is to outline ways in which a current economic ideology, that of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, has shaped the assessment system in one School in an Australian university.
The main source of university funding in Australia is through Commonwealth government funding arrangements which have fallen in real terms over the past 15 years (Lomax-Smith et al., 2011). As a result, universities impose efficiency measures on their operations which, as shown here have a trickle-down-effect on student assessment. In this presentation, the assessment system is examined in light of a systems approach with assumptions of inputs, processes and outputs. The focus of the discussion is on the processes component where assessment tasks are designed to gauge the level of learning achieved by a student. The extent to which the assessment requirements provide task choice, variation and responsiveness to the student's future work context are dependent on the decisions made by academics in the context of the efficiency measures inherent in higher education at all levels. Students are assessment cue seekers and will approach learning according to the cues gained from the assessment requirements. This in turn shapes the breadth, depth and quality of their learning (Ramsden 1992; Biggs 2003).

A case study was designed to investigate the ways in which the efficiency measures resulting from decreased university funding affect the range of student assessment tasks in core (compulsory) subjects in the final year of undergraduate studies. Convenience sampling was used to identify the interviewees. An interpretive research paradigm provides a basis for explanation and interpretation of the assessment practices. Interviews with nine academics teaching compulsory subjects in the final undergraduate year and with executive university and faculty administrators were undertaken and relevant documents examined. The findings reveal that the selection of the assessment tasks is informed by pragmatic considerations and shaped by such factors as allocated workload hours for assessment, tutoring budgets and class size, rather than from a perspective of providing further varied learning opportunities for students to apply and demonstrate their deep learning achieved. This potentially lessens the strength of the validity of students' assessment results on which other systems depend for decision making about a student's academic strengths, such as the workplace.