Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Communication Skills and Criterion-Referenced Assessment
Originator Iain Hay
Department School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management, The Flinders University of South Australia, GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia
Tel. +61 8 8201 2386
Fax +61 8 8201 3521

Over a period of years I developed, applied and reviewed a written teaching and assessment manual intended to promote the development of communication skills amongst geography students at Flinders University. The manual provided advice to students on presenting talks, writing essays and research reports, preparing posters and communicating graphically. The manual also included carefully developed assessment schedules associated with these forms of communication. The schedules had been intended to form the basis of a system of criterion-referenced assessment, but practical and pedagogic problems prevented this. Nevertheless, the manual was implemented successfully across the discipline and was eventually published as part of an Oxford University Press text-book series in geography (Hay, 1996).

The manual had four central aims:

Literature reviews, staff and student surveys, and detailed reviews of staff assessment practices were used to uncover assessment criteria for various kinds of assignment. These criteria, plus guidance on fulfilling them, were prepared and circulated at no charge to staff and students in the form of an easily-read, unintimidating handbook. Student reviews of the handbook were very favourable. Students regarded the book as comprehensive, well-written and indexed, funny and friendly, and clear and concise. The book became the standard reference volume for all topics taught in the School of Geography, Population and Environmental Management.

I had thought that the assessment criteria outlined in the handbook could be used as the basis for department-wide criterion-referenced assessment. In criterion-referenced assessment, levels of achievement and progress are determined by comparison with a set of specified, pre-set objectives or standards. The focal point of assessment is the measurement of levels of expertise, the reporting of which is made in clear, absolute statements. This differs from norm-referenced assessment in which levels of achievement are determined by comparison with a norm established by a large defined group, such as colleagues, peers or year group. Criterion-referenced assessment would make it clear to students what they would have to do to achieve a given grade; it would allow staff and students to focus their teaching and learning activities more effectively; it would provide some form of consistency in marking between staff members; and it would ensure that reporting was comprehensive whilst simultaneously making assessment of student work faster and easier. However, problems and objections prompted a retreat from criterion-referenced assessment. The concerns raised by staff included: inflexibility, with little scope to acknowledge individual student difficulties; suppression of individualism; and problems of relative weighting of criteria in assessment within assignments and between staff members. The result was that criterion-referenced assessment was abandoned, but assessment schedules have remained.

Relevant References:


Communication skills
Criterion-referenced assessment
Norm-referenced assessment

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