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Variability in assessor responses to undergraduate essays

An issue for assessment quality in higher education

Sally Roisin O'Hagan

Academic standards in higher education depend on the judgements of individual academics assessing student work; it is in these micro-level practices that the validity and fairness of assessment is constituted. However, the quality of assessments of open-ended tasks like the coursework essay is difficult to ascertain because of the complex and subjective nature of the judgements involved. In view of current concerns about assessment quality and standards, this book is a timely reflection on the practices of academic judgement at university. It explores assessment quality through an empirical study of essay marking in an undergraduate discipline where large class sizes and significant numbers of second language students are common. The study shows that assessors vary in their interpretations of criteria and standards and that this results in inconsistent grading of essays. The book contributes to a growing scholarship of assessment with an evidence-based explanation of why assessors disagree and a discussion of the implications of this for the validity of assessment practices at university.
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1. Introduction



This book is concerned with the quality of assessment practices in higher education. The book’s starting point is an investigation of student language background – whether native- or non native-speaker of English – as a source of variability in the responses of university assessors to undergraduate disciplinary writing. Variability amongst assessors is a concern for assessment quality because it may represent a fundamental threat to the soundness of judgements made about student performance. Specifically, the book investigates variability in the marks awarded to essays and the features of writing performance that assessors focus on in making these judgements about quality.

Concerns about the quality of assessment practices in higher education are by no means new. Increasing student numbers however, including a growing proportion of international students, has provided a changing context for these concerns. Given the diversity of students now participating in higher education, the issue of consistency of assessment criteria and standards across different groups of students has become a focus in considerations of quality and fairness in student assessment.

The first section of this chapter introduces the assessment issues and research problem considered in this book, contextualises these and in doing so, explains the rationale for the research with particular reference to the higher education environment in Australia. In one sense, the book can be read as a case study of assessment practices which throws to light how locally constituted cultures of practice can threaten the validity of student assessments, and in another,...

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