In order to establish whether or not a student is a competent practitioner in a professional context, it is essential to use experiential approaches for the testing of skills, otherwise we risk missing the very heart of what it is that we are aiming to assess. It is not sensible to assess practice in ways that traditionally have been used to assess learning in universities, as we are likely to miss important elements. If, for example, we want to assess the skill of hedgelaying, we should not just ask the student to write a history of hedgerows, provide a set of instructions for tackling a neglected and overgrown hedgerow or write an account of the kinds of species we might find in a typical 200-year-old hedge (although the ability to converse knowledgeably about these areas would be expected of an expert hedgelayer). In the final analysis, we would need to judge the hedgelayer's skill at actually laying hedges. This rustic analogy can be applied to any of the professional disciplines we encounter in institutions of higher education.
This chapter explores some of the issues that arise when practice is to be assessed, and provides descriptions of some of the principal evidence-based means which are used. It is based on experience of working with staff in universities and colleges who assess students aiming to become nurses, lawyers, vets, hotel and catering staff, occupational therapists, accountants, doctors, social workers, artists, quantity surveyors, librarians, chemists, fashion designers, engineers of all kinds, playworkers, medical laboratory scientists, actors and teachers (but in fact, to date, no hedgelayers!). It also draws on the work of others, notably the Assessment Strategies in the Scottish Higher Education project (Hounsell et al. 1996), which presents an inventory of 120 accounts of innovative assessment, many of which relate to the assessment of practice. In addition, my work as a member of The Impact of Innovative Assessment project at the University of Northumbria (McDowell 1995) and Chapter 6 in this volume has informed my thinking.