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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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This study is a revised version of my PhD thesis submitted to the University of Melbourne in 2010. My interest in rater behaviour and writing assessment arose through my experience of providing essay writing assistance to tertiary students with different language backgrounds and varied levels of academic English proficiency. I wondered how, when later submitted for assessment, these essays were judged by tutors and lecturers: what assessment criteria were used, and how did these shape the assessors’ understandings of quality? Such questions eventually led me to the enquiry that forms the basis of this book.

For her supervision of my PhD research, I would like to thank Prof. Gillian Wigglesworth, who patiently guided me through the project and kept me on track, and whose insights helped me to shape the final work. I would also like to acknowledge the support of Assoc. Prof. Cathie Elder who has advised me over many years and been instrumental in my development as a researcher. I am also grateful to past and present colleagues and friends in the School of Languages and Linguistics and the Language Testing Research Centre at the University of Melbourne for providing me with opportunities, assistance and encouragement including Neomy Storch, Janne Morton, Celia Thompson, Kathryn Hill, Noriko Iwashita, Anne Isaac, Lis Grove, Annie Brown, Paul Gruba, Carsten Roever and Tim McNamara.

Finally I would like to thank several people (anonymously) at the research site for their various contributions without which the study would...

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