An ethnographic examination of the assessment culture within the postgraduate Programme in Global Development Management (GDM)

Chang, Daphne (2010). An ethnographic examination of the assessment culture within the postgraduate Programme in Global Development Management (GDM). In: EARLI/Northumbria Assessment Conference 2010, 01-03 Sep 2010, Slaley Hall Hotel, Northumberland, UK.



The Global Development Management Programme (GDM) is a programme of supported open learning that leads to four postgraduate qualifications within the MCT Faculty. The overall aims of this project were to investigate the assessment culture within GDM and suggest ways in which assessment reform could take place, to establish the extent to which the current assessment strategy is a programme approach and to inform the MCT Faculty assessment strategy. The project recognises that assessing students’ attainment is a human experience, thus the methodology for the investigation is an ethnographic one. Whilst it is pertinent to look at assessment from learners’ perspectives and in relation to learners (Rust 2002 and Gibbs and Dunbar-Goddet 2009 for example), it is important to examine the concept/practices of assessment from practitioners’ views. The ethnographic approach in this context helped to shed light on the different perceptions held by the practitioners in GDM. Furthermore, it has laid a good foundation for a participatory assessment reform which would ensure less resistance.

A number of research methods were employed to elucidate the assessment practices and the perceptions on these practices within the GDM: a desktop research was carried out to investigate the validity of the curriculum maps and how Learning Outcomes (LOs) were communicated in the assessment documents; semi-structured face to face interviews with course chairs as well as in-depth telephone interviews with the assessment writers and the academic related/secretarial staff involved in the process were carried out; a questionnaire with both open-ended and closed questions was sent out to all the associate lecturers who taught the GDM courses.

It was noted that the curriculum maps for the awards were largely valid. However, not all LOs were consistently taught, developed and assessed. Interestingly, most of the Associate Lecturers (ALs) felt that the relationship between the LOs and the assessment was not made sufficiently clear to students. One pronounced characteristic of the GDM culture came to light: the central academics who produced the GDM courses worked closely together. Although an explicit programme approach to assessment was not evident, strong evidence suggested that different courses shared very similar approaches/strategies towards assessment. It was also noted that assessing essay questions was difficult because of its subjective nature and the ALs had different approaches towards the Marking Notes. The consensus was that a prescriptive approach and punitive attitude towards students’ attainment should be avoided. Whilst tutors should be allowed sufficient flexibility and personal judgement in marking essay questions, a clear set of marking discriminators to characterise different categories of academic competencies should be specifically designed for each assignment.

In the end an action plan was recommended to begin the process of reform: more debates amongst the above practitioners needs to take place concerning the relationship between award and course level assessment strategy, GDM courses should communicate the LOs more systematically and explicitly by various means, an interactive website could be devised for students to carry out self-assessment and further skills development, and a workshop for the ALs should take place to standardise the marking discriminators and to resolve issues such as penalties for word count violation and poor referencing.

Gibbs, G. and Dunbar-Goddet, H. (2009) ‘Characterising programme-level assessment environments that support learning’, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34:4, 481 489.
Rust, C. (2002) ‘The Impact of Assessment on Student Learning’ Active Learning in Higher Education, Vol. 3, No. 2, 145-158

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