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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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2. A review of the literature on writing assessment


2.A review of the literature on writing assessment

The previous chapter raised some of the concerns about the quality of assessment in HE that have been the subject of much scholarly debate as well as discussion in popular news media internationally. It was argued that a number of interrelated factors in the wider context of the current HE environment – marketisation of HE, an ethos of managerialism in university governance, and the growth in international education – create particular issues for HE with regard to the ways in which quality in assessment is understood. Chapter 2 evaluates the empirical evidence for concerns over assessment quality, and considers how researchers and educational institutions are confronting the challenges they pose. It will be argued that there is a lack of knowledge about micro-level assessment practices, and that this has implications for the value of current approaches to assessment reform.

The chapter moves towards this conclusion through six sections. The first section reviews previous research on inconsistencies in the assessment of students’ disciplinary writing at university, while the second considers some of the responses to this issue – developments in institutional policy and its implementation in the Australian HE environment (in relation to internationalisation and student diversity), and the emergence of a technically oriented literature on assessment practice. The third section returns to the problem of inconsistency in HE assessment, and discusses some of the reasons for this. In doing this, the distinctively contextualised nature of assessment at university is highlighted, as...

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