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What university students think about assessment – reflections from Italy by Serafina Pastore

pastore (2)Over time, the higher education systems have been exposed to deep and radical transformations. Different processes such as, standardization, diversification, privatization, and internationalization have brought deep institutional changes. Many are the problems that higher education systems have had to deal with: first of all the pervasive attention on teaching-learning quality considered both at institutional and individual level. This concept brings together several aspects such as curricula design, attention to learning context, students’ services support as highlighted by the OECD pilot study on the assessment of learning outcomes (AHELO), and the recognition of a different kind of assessment of students’ learning outcomes.

The emphasis on measurement and assessment of learning has overshadowed further purposes related to assessment and reduced the role and the importance of the main subjects involved in the teaching-learning processes. The assessment should not, in fact, just be aimed to determine what students have acquired in terms of contents at the end of a module or program (traditional and instrumental view). Assessment should allow teachers to provide students with information about their learning so they can become «more effective, self-assessing, self-directed learners» as suggested by Angelo and Cross (1993, 4). A considerable scientific literature about feedback and assessment emphasizes the influence of the assessment in the teaching-learning process. However, sometimes assessment seems to be irrelevant and not supportive both for teachers and students.

This raises a variety of questions:

  • How much does assessment improve students learning?
  • Do teachers provide useful, appropriate, and timely feedback?
  • Do teachers allow students to recognize and understand elements that can lead to an improvement in their performance and their learning?

There is a strong drive internationally in higher education to support a new assessment culture. Remarkable are the efforts to outline a different kind of assessment that should be more sustainable and useful in order to foster students’ learning process. However, the big question is what assessment practices really work.

We need to know if and how different assessment practices are effective or not. As I outlined in a recent article “What university students think about assessment: a case study from Italy” in EJHE, we need to understand if assessment practices, following policy recommendations, are really changing. In this vein analyse teachers’ and students’ conceptions about assessment is a chance to understand how assessment works in higher education system and how social, political, and institutional innovations are perceived by the main actors of the teaching-learning process.

The main interesting thing that emerges in the case study presented in the EJHE article is how assessment is perceived by the Italian students as something of irrelevant for their learning. Assessment is a silent practice. Sometimes it is considered as something of formal and bureaucratic. Although the context of this paper is the Italian higher education system I guess that it confirms how profound is the gap between theory and practice. A critical need to re-look into assessment practices in higher education systems is implied. Understanding how assessment is perceived both by teachers and students is a step forward to assure the teaching-learning quality. But more attempts to proceed to on in-depth international comparisons are also needed.

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