Imbalanced assessment in higher education: Will it be reviewed?

Mili Saha

A widespread issue is the poor standard we maintain in our higher education system. I often talk to my colleagues or students teaching in different universities or colleges about it, and I debate as well. Everyone has the same view, in spite of having many universities, we cannot upgrade the quality of education. Moreover, experts frequently complain it is even degrading, and higher education learners do not have to read many things. Only five percent of them write well in the test books. Some of us accuse infrastructural scarcity and administrative flaws as well. Sometimes teachers’ professional sincerity, teaching methods, and teacher qualifications are also questioned.  However, I am never much disappointed with the overall education system since numerous students and teachers are working successfully both as professionals and researchers at home and abroad. Even the students coming from the newly established universities in remote areas are performing well enough. Since we seldom hear the frustrations and highlight the success stories, the existing problems, along with a possible solution, is not approached yet.

convo-fall-2017Neither academic achievement is the only measure of success, nor fulfilling individuals’ professional dreams is the sole objective of education. At least, the purpose of any educational plan should not be so. Also, we do not make such a massive arrangement for a few 5-10% of students. Universal learning, same instruction or assessment, and learners’ equal access to all facilities are crucial in achieving educational goals and objectives. We question the quality when education fails to ensure equity and inclusiveness in an academic context and only individual achievement is focused. I  am hopeful since our students are concerned with the current low standard of the education they receive. When I hear them, I become optimistic again. Because if a student himself perceives, he lacks sufficient knowledge, he will discover the strategies needed to achieve it and compensate himself. And, this is the theme of contemporary research on educational improvement. That is the motto of  ‘active-learning’ too. We, the teachers, educators and administrators cannot ignore our liabilities.

The point of disappointment is different. Having free access to social media, teachers come to the contact of many matters involving students’ private issues or overall interests now, which would be unknown to our teachers. To my utter surprise, I notice many of my students study only several days or nights before exams. From my own experience, I can assure, quite a few university students study unless they have any exam-schedule or presentation date. Blaming the students is hard since most of them have to work part-time to bear the educational expenses and assist their families financially. It is often challenging to study the way they need to do, or the teachers expect them to do. However, we cannot compromise the quality and adequate knowledge that the students need to acquire in higher education. Also, I do not think the financial limitation is the main reason. Instead, the defective grading system, test-based evaluation, ‘lecture-based’ class, non-collaborative learning,  lacking motivation, lack of coordination between institutional education and future employment, and unnecessary online social interaction mostly hamper adequate learning.

The solution is not difficult. we have poor learning outcome because we allow students memorizing facts and findings to reproduce and synthesize in exams. What is overlooked in this process is every student has different and unique learning strategies preferred by him/her and fifty students in a class cannot be equally skillful, creative, or reproductive within the given time. Also, “One size does not fit all”! On the other hand, introducing research-based evaluation is not trouble-free in such large classes. The government has stepped one step up by discarding tests up to third grade. Although picking alternative evaluation methods adopted in the advanced countries at elementary levels will be difficult for us, primarily due to inadequate technology, infrastructures, and equipment in the remote areas. But the problem is less severe in case of higher education. Students benefit equally if various types of assessment or evaluation are applied in a learning context. Also, universal learning takes place, and dropout due to exam-pressure reduces. That might decrease copying, although there will be a more significant issue with plagiarism (copying texts from different sources) at the beginning. We might have means of getting out of such degenerated culture gradually. Practicing integrity in education will reflect in social life as well. If we have more universities, we should get a maximum of 20-25 students in a class. That would enable us to assess the students using original and research-based assignments. Addressing individual learners’ problems in a small class is easy, which we call personalized care. Higher education learners suffer so many different stresses that each student needs advice separately. The class size must be small To ensure these things.

Nevertheless, I must focus on two points. The 10% marks allocated for student attendance in our grading system needs to be more knowledge-based. Generally, the foreign universities which allow 5-10% marks for student attendance include some important teaching techniques, such as homework and class-dissuasions in it. For instance, the tutor may assign one or two subject-based research articles or book chapters to read at home, and students divide into groups or pairs to find answers to the questions given by the teacher and share own views or experiences in the next class. Since such group work is practiced regularly, and this is a significant step of active learning, the number of attendees is counted at the same time. I think 10% of marks should not be allotted for merely being present in the class. Although more students attend classes than ever before, not everyone sitting inside the classroom hear the teachers with a lot of attention! Almost all teachers mention about distraction and using cellphones in the classroom. However, I  do not suggest disposing of these marks. I want some home-work and class-discussions to be added here, which could be beneficial to the students and easy to deal for the teachers. This can ensure students do not sit idle or distracted. Also, they can quickly internalize daily lesson in class without any extra effort. It should not be much challenging to coordinate and can ensure the required learning for every student.

My experience is the existing system of grading attendance not only discriminates the students handling family responsibilities but also continually influences student-teacher relationships. In many cases, teachers have the opportunity to assess a student’s problems or behavior, and students not obtaining expected marks have chances to blame the teachers. Instead, having 10% for research presentation in every course would improve students’ research communication and linguistic skills. Preparing for future work-life is essential for university students. Otherwise, we will be held responsible for the learners legging behind in the professional competition.

Secondly, only discarding tests will not promote universal learning, and balanced assessment is also essential. For example, we evaluate only 30/40 marks throughout five and half months in a six-month semester, whereas we assess 60/70 marks in a few hours of semester final exams. Isn’t it imbalanced? We cannot report a student’s academic progress over six months using an instant evaluation, and I am not sure if it is capable of measuring knowledge acquired in a full semester. We may not commence assignment-based assessments by trimming the class size down overnight. But if we use a series of continuous assessment carrying 70%, students have to study equally throughout the term, and they will read as much as they need to know. For further example, if there are four exams or assignments in each course, students have to read at least something every day. Above all, they will receive regular and frequent feedback essential to ensure improved learning. Final evaluation of 70% means we are allowing the learners only a single week to skim through the entire course. Thus, it is we who lead them to over-night preparation. I also noticed the students writing a very basic or summarized answers in final exams write excellent analytical responses in mid-term or presentation. This means they have less stress in the small tests.

To sum up, there are no better alternatives to allocating 30% marks in final assessment to prevent the at-risk learners dropping out and allowing 70% marks to get the online generation back to the desk! Doing this would ensure equal opportunity for the special needs learners and remove test-fear among all other students.

(Mili Saha is an Assistant Professor of English at Jagannath University, Dhaka).