Qualitatively different conceptions of criteria used to assess student learning

Year: 1999

Author: Barrie, Simon, Brew, Angela, McCulloch, Mary

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reports on research exploring different conceptions embedded within assessment criteria which is being carried out in the context of a large, research-based Australian university. Warren Piper and colleagues (1996) in a study of examination practices and procedures within Australian universities found that respondents were confused about the meaning of 'criterion referencing' and that many failed to appreciate its implications. One of the most obvious manifestations of such misunderstandings is in the writing of assessment criteria.

The investigation grew from experiences of dealing with apparently diverse understandings of assessment criteria. A range of criteria drawn from across the academic spectrum was collected and analysed using a phenomenographic approach focusing on the interpretation of texts not originally written for the purposes of the research. This type of analysis has been called "hermeneutic phenomenography" (Hasselgren & Beach, 1997).

In this paper, the qualitatively different conceptions of assessment criteria which were found in the data are presented and discussed. The identification of these conceptions provides a theoretical framework for understanding different types and uses of criteria in higher education.

In the context of University policy advocating a shift from norm-referenced to criterion-referenced assessment approaches, the diversity of conceptions in the data has been particularly useful. It has clarified the current state of assessment practices, indicated potential directions for development and provided a basis for monitoring changes in assessment practices as policy implementation proceeds. The paper examines these findings and discusses their wider implications.