The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1. Introduction

The analysis of assessment methods is an effervescent aspect of pedagogical inquiry into higher education teaching practices. At the heart of any such analysis must be a clear recognition of the objectives or purpose of assessment. The most obvious function of assessment is as a means of gauging student progress or learning. However, despite the undeniable truth of this statement, a crucial role of assessment is to serve as a means of supporting, encouraging and improving the learning process, rather than simply acting as a method of measuring its extent. Clearly an immediate issue that arises here is the familiar distinction between summative and formative methods of assessment. However, in practice, the border between the two is blurred as all assessment, irrespective of whether it counts towards a final module mark, must clearly seek to develop understanding and assist the learning process. Consequently, consideration of ‘learning’ provides a starting point in the analysis of assessment.

For those not cognisant with the associated ‘learning’ literature, a recommended starting point is Weinstein and Mayer (1986) and their identification of four categories of cognitive learning strategies: rehearsal, elaboration, organisation and comprehension monitoring. Ostensibly, rehearsal refers to the repetition of information; elaboration and organisation emphasise the union of the new understanding with that which preceded it; comprehension monitoring evaluates the knowledge that has been acquired. This variety of options offers significant scope to consider the extent to which they can be embedded within one single methodology, which could provide the instructor with a straightforward system to appraise any single assessment choice. However, whilst it is important to refer to such possibilities, it is not the primary purpose of this chapter to explore them. Instead, such studies and the insights they provide will be recognised as offering a potential structure for assessment design and will be referred as necessary later in this chapter, but will not be considered in detail. Rather, the aim here is to provide an overview of basic ‘summative’ assessment issues, with this then applied to several case studies in order to provoke a debate conducive with the economics instructor further developing the methods that they employ.

To fulfil this aim, the chapter will proceed as follows. In the following section, some general points relating to assessment will be examined. This will involve discussion of the role of technology and the uncertainty associated with its future impact, along with the bigger picture concerning the role of assessment and the limitations and strengths of specific assessment. The following section moves on to consider more ‘structural’ issues, reflecting upon both practicalities and the pedagogical literature. The analysis will then proceed to present specific case studies which not only highlight a range of issues raised previously, but also provide examples of practice and a statistical analysis of the impact of differing assessment schemes.