Encouraging Learning through External Engineering Assessment
Parsons, D., Australasian Journal of Engineering Education
The purpose of assessment in engineering is primarily to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills to practice engineering. So assessment is used to check that learning has occurred and, secondarily, to allow grading that reflects the level of that learning. However, according to Hansen (2004), another purpose of assessment is to motivate students to learn and to encourage students to think about what they have learned in the semester just assessed, and so to learn better.
Most assessment in engineering comprises some assignments plus an examination with significant weighting, which typically focuses on "hard" content. The examination is retained primarily because of the fear that students will cheat if assessed by mechanisms that allow them to seek help from others either voluntarily or by paying for it. There is, of course, significant evidence, both anecdotal and well researched, for the fact that this fear is justified, see for example McCabe (1997) and Carpenter et al (2002), who claim that cheating has increased significantly over recent decades. Certainly my own university has spent a lot of time working out strategies to combat plagiarism (University of Southern Queensland, 2007) and largely insists on a final examination worth at least 50% of marks awarded so that grading will reflect students' individual achievements.
2 PROBLEMS WITH EXAMINATIONS
There are however significant problems with examinations as vehicles of assessment. This paper will discuss what these problems are and then move on to discuss possible alternatives.
2.1 Examinations encourage a poor approach to learning
Students seem to decide often to concentrate on the major assessments and specifically on the final examination, rather than participate enthusiastically in more formative activities during the semester (McDowell et al, 2004). Experience suggests that while examiners may want students to learn first and then use assessment to check that learning has occurred, students start by trying to fulfil the assessment requirements. This may mean they miss out on some of the learning that is not assessed formally, such as the need for good organisation and all the other not-codified knowledge (Hansen, 2004). There is substantial evidence for this assertion in the author's experience teaching external southeast Asian students where the (Australian) not-codified knowledge is not always understood. In this case too, most students are studying externally so there is not much opportunity for not-codified knowledge, such as professional attitudes, to "rub off" onto students by direct contact with lecturers. It also means that at least the brighter students often adopt the strategy of studying just in time for exams, which may be satisfactory for hard technical content, but is unlikely to be a satisfactory way of achieving deeper learning (McDowell et al, 2004).
2.2 Examinations assess limited aspects of learning
A powerful motivation to learn is provided to students by assessments, but examinations probably only produce motivation to learn some of the details expected of a graduate.
Examinations tend to be mainly focused on the lower levels of Bloom's taxonomy of learning, not least because they are conducted over a very short period of time and under stressful circumstances. In other words, examinations tend to emphasise content rather than the numerous other attributes required by graduates, such as life long learning skills, teamwork skills, ability to handle cultural diversity and sustainability, hard work, and good organisation. Examinations are not good vehicles for encouraging students to climb the learning hierarchy, because they do not encourage reflection about past learning (Hansen, 2004), nor are examination results a good measure of students' achievements in these areas. As Knight (2004) says, tertiary education is a complex process and comes from a complex process. …