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Issue 22, November 2005  

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Less is more: rethinking assessment
in a first-year History unit
Cindy McCreery
Department of History, Faculty of Arts

I recently joined the Department of History as a lecturer, and, amongst other duties, have been involved in teaching first-year students. The Department of History, part of the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry (SOPHI), offers a rich selection of units of study that reflects the staff’s expertise in American, Australian and European history ( In first year, students can choose from a range of options, including HSTY 1045, ‘Modern European History 1750-1914’. This unit of study introduces students to the major themes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European history, including the Industrial Revolution, French Revolution, the rise of liberalism, capitalism and socialism, changes to family life, and the origins of World War One. This is a fascinating and influential period, when many of the major political institutions and social and cultural movements that we are familiar with today (for example the system of parliamentary democracy) were first developed. By addressing such topics, HSTY 1045 aims to provide students with an understanding of the key issues in European history that have shaped the modern world.

This is an important and challenging task. More and more, our students focus on twentieth-century history in high school. There is relatively little attention to history pre-1900 (let alone pre-1800), with the notable exception of Ancient History. Moreover, many students enter university with little background in history at all. This means that in HSTY 1045 we must assist students to come to grips with a period about which they often know little and a society which may seem completely alien. How do you make sense of the French Revolution if you don’t know what pre-revolutionary France was like? At the same time, we introduce students to perhaps the most important, yet complex and challenging, aspect of the practice of history, namely researching and writing a long essay.

The Department of History is committed to providing students with an excellent learning experience. Its staff members are interested not just in ‘product (the production and delivery of new information)’ but ‘process (how students learn in their subject and how learning develops through the interaction between student and subject matter)’ (Booth, 2004:251). With the introduction of the University’s new policy on assessment, my colleagues and I have been considering ways to improve the assessment in History units of study, as well as to ensure that our teaching helps students develop the university’s graduate attributes.

In order to achieve these goals, I decided to enrol in the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education) this year. This decision was warmly supported by the Head of SOPHI as well as my colleagues in the Department of History. The following is based on a Graduate Certificate project on assessing student learning that I completed in first semester. The task was to provide ‘critical review of an existing assessment from the perspective of the extent to which assessment supports quality student learning, together with a proposal for improved assessment which is consistent with the University’s new standards-based approach to assessment’. I chose to focus on the assessment in HSTY 1045.

Teaching Context
HSTY 1045, Modern European History 1750-1914, is a very large (350+students) first-year unit of study, which is taught by various lecturers in first semester each year. Students enrol in HSTY 1045 from a wide variety of degrees and programs, and are taught via two one-hour lectures and a one hour tutorial per week. The current assessment strategy comprises:
• 250-word analysis of a journal article (10% final mark)
• ten-minute tutorial presentation (10%)
• 2,000-word long essay (35%)
• formal two-hour exam (35%)
• tutorial participation (10%)

I have been increasingly concerned about the gap between the large number of things we try to teach students in this unit of study, and what they actually learn. In particular, I have doubts about the effectiveness of some of the assessment tasks we assign. My reading in the Graduate Certificate has enabled me to conceptualize what is actually happening with current assessment practice and why that may be undesirable. In turn, this has helped me to think about ways to improve the assessment strategy in HSTY 1045.

For the purpose of the project I focused on the journal article analysis and the long essay, and with what I perceive as their relative misalignment with the unit of study’s learning outcomes. I should make clear that there are many excellent aspects of HSTY 1045, not least the commitment and passion of my fellow lecturers. The problem, I think, is with aligning our good intentions as teachers with student perceptions of their learning, and this is where I think revision of the current assessment strategy is desirable. I must emphasize that I view the following project as an experiment, a first step towards improving the quality of student learning in HSTY 1045. It certainly does not purport to be ‘the last word’ in improving this unit of study, and other changes to the assessment strategy may well be advisable in the future.

Current Assessment Practice – Critical Review
My own experience teaching HSTY 1045, discussion with colleagues who have also taught the unit, reflection on the Graduate Certificate sessions on assessment, as well as my reading of the research literature on how students perceive assessment, all indicate that the unit’s current assessment strategy does not always fulfil its stated student learning outcomes. (O’Donovan, Price & Rust, 2004; Leach, Neutze & Zepke, 2001 and Ramsden, 2003). In particular, HSTY 1045 does not always achieve what I regard as its three most important learning outcomes, namely that this unit of study will enable students to:

• analyse historical writing in a critical fashion
• develop skills at presenting your analyses in oral and written form
• learn how to carry out independent research through the writing of an essay

Student surveys also suggest some misalignment between assessment and student learning outcomes. Some students complain that they are overwhelmed with material, provided with little guidance on preparing their essay (‘I didn’t know what standard was expected’), and given insufficient feedback on their performance. A few also complain about variations in marking standards between tutors and lecturers (marking is divided between 4-5 postgraduate tutors and 2 lecturers). Finally, some students lament the absence of opportunities for group work involved in the unit. Such responses suggest an overall feeling of powerlessness and lack of autonomy among students. As the experience of Leach, Neutze & Zepke (2001) demonstrates, encouraging autonomy among students can lead to higher-quality student learning. Students’ perceived confusion about essay writing is borne out by their performance. Many students who perform well in both the article analysis and the long essay entered the unit of study with excellent essay writing skills, while others don’t seem to improve much over the course of the semester. In other words, we seem to assess students more on what they learn from others (e.g. high school teachers) rather than what they learn from us. This conflicts with the university policy that assessment should be effective, and in particular ‘a representative test of the knowledge, understanding and skills to be achieved by successful completion of the curriculum’ (The University of Sydney, 2000, amended 2004, section

While the lecturers all lead tutorials and mark written assignments, the large number of students means that we also employ postgraduate tutors. This means that we have non-specialists (the vast majority of these tutors are NOT studying European history topics for their PhDs) marking a great deal of written work in a short amount of time. Not only does this mean that tutors may vary in the quality as well as quantity of formative feedback they provide students on their written work, there may also be some problems of inconsistency in the summative feedback, e.g. one tutor might give an essay a ‘55’ that another would give a ‘65’. This means that the assessment may be both ‘inefficient’ (because it doesn’t help students to learn) and ‘unacceptable’ (because the distribution of marks isn’t necessarily fair and transparent). (University of Sydney, 2000, amended 2004, sections and While there will always be strict time and resource constraints on our marking of written work, I believe that my proposed new assessment strategy will improve the quality of both the students’ written work and the formative and summative feedback that they are given on this assessment.

With improvements to the current assessment strategy I believe that all of these learning outcomes will be more readily achieved, and that there will be constructive alignment of the assessment strategy with the learning outcomes. Constructive alignment, a term taken from Biggs (1999) in this context, means that the assessment strategy actually facilitates the student learning outcomes. By focusing in a more structured way on preparing the long essay, students will learn to ‘analyse historical writing’, ‘develop skills at presenting analyses in oral and written form’ and ‘learn how to carry out independent research’. As research studies such as Ramsden’s report on Hyde and Taylor’s Animal Science course point out, constructive alignment of the assessment strategy with the learning outcomes provides greater opportunities for achieving high-quality student learning. (Ramsden, 2003:193-94). Alignment of assessment and learning is important for its own sake, but it also enables HSTY 1045 to better meet the guidelines set out in the university’s policy on standards-based assessment, and thus to enhance the consistency of students’ learning experiences. (The University of Sydney, 2000, amended 2004, sections, 2.2.2, 3.2.7).

Proposed new assessment strategy
My proposal is to replace the current journal article analysis and separate long essay (together worth 45% of the students’ final mark) with a three-stage essay process (also worth 45%). At the moment the journal analysis is not linked with the long essay and is often misunderstood by students. I think that students’ and teachers’ time would be better spent focusing on the essay, which is the hallmark of almost every university History unit of study, and indeed most closely resembles what professional historians ‘do’. The new assessment strategy comprises:

• ten-minute tutorial presentation (10%)
• 2,000-word long essay (45%), consisting of:
• draft essay plan and bibliography (10%)
• final version of essay (35%)
• formal two-hour exam (35%)
• tutorial participation (10%)

Revised Essay Assessment
In the first stage of the long essay preparation, students meet in Week 4, not with their usual tutorial group, but with the other students who are researching the same essay question (these are divided up equally, so that each question is answered by the same number of students) and the lecturer or tutor who will mark this assignment. This represents a U-turn in current practice, as currently we go to great lengths to obscure who will mark particular essay questions in order to prevent students parroting back the marker’s perceived views on a particular topic in their essays. Nor do we encourage students to work together on essay preparation, for fear of plagiarism. I now think that it would be most beneficial for students to work with the person who will mark their essay, and to discuss their ideas openly with other students. This openness should engender a greater sense of trust between staff and students. It should also help staff identify problems with a student’s approach to an essay (and potential plagiarism) before the final version is handed in. As students will have more time to work on the essay, this approach should lessen the last-minute panic that sometimes leads to plagiarism. Students spend this tutorial session drafting a ‘directed paraphrase’ of the essay question, swapping it with another student to read and respond to, then reporting back to the whole group on their various responses. As Biggs notes, research conducted by Angelo and Cross (1993) indicates that direct paraphrasing can be a useful tool for assessing students’ understanding of subject matter. (Biggs, 1999:131-132).

By encouraging students to work in pairs and to then present their ideas to the whole class, this exercise should build students’ group work skills, ‘confront individuals with alternative views and different standards of work’, and provide experience in reaching the second learning outcome, namely ‘develop skills at presenting your analyses in oral and written form’ (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004-05, pp. 15-16). By giving students the experience of analysing other students’ work, this task helps them to see the assignment from the marker’s perspective. As O’Donovan et al (2004:330-332) point out, sharing the marking experience with students ‘should also enable more effective knowledge transfer of assessment criteria and standards’ as well as encouraging ‘assessment for learning’. This exercise counts towards students’ tutorial participation mark but otherwise is not graded, which should alleviate any anxiety that students have about ‘performing’ in front of the class.

The tutor then leads general discussion on how to ‘unpack’ the essay question, emphasizing that the department values individual interpretations, and provides guidance on finding relevant sources and preparing the draft essay plan and bibliography. S/he also draws students’ attention to the departmental essay writing guide and the department’s set of grade descriptors, which are the subject of one of the lectures that week. In 2004 a postgraduate student and I prepared a HSTY 1045 Essay Writing Guide, which is currently being revised for adoption by the entire History department ( We also have an excellent departmental set of grade descriptors. ( While these are useful tools, I think that they will have even greater impact if they are well integrated into teaching. Through discussion of the Essay Writing Guide and grade descriptors in lectures and tutorials, students will have the opportunity to think about them BEFORE they use them, as well as to ask questions and make comments on them. In this way students’ attention is drawn to the way in which HSTY 1045 assessment is standards-based, and in turn consistent with the policy endorsed by the university.

In the second stage, students meet with their essay tutorial group in Week 6 after reading relevant sources and preparing a draft essay plan and bibliography (250 words, together worth 10% of final mark). They discuss both with another student, and then report back on the partner’s essay plan (via another directed paraphrase, as recommended by Angelo and Cross) to the group (Angelo and Cross, 1993, in Biggs, 1999:132). The partner then comments on how well the student has understood his/her essay plan. This session is designed to give students more opportunities to reflect on the essay writing process, work towards the learning outcomes and to report problems and seek shared solutions (e.g. if one student has had trouble finding a relevant book, the tutor and other students may be able to suggest alternative locations for the book or alternative readings). The students submit their draft essay plans and bibliographies to the tutor, who marks them according to the existing departmental grade descriptors for Fail, Pass, Credit, Distinction and High Distinction work. The work is then quickly returned to the student with a copy of these grade descriptors, and with brief written comments which focus on how the work fits the particular grade assigned. This process will be repeated in the feedback given on the final version of the essay.

In the third phase of essay preparation, students are encouraged to contact the marker with any questions about this feedback before handing in the final version of the essay (worth 35%) in Week 9. The marker keeps a copy of the draft essay plan and bibliography, and compares them with the final version of the essay, which is returned before Week 13 so that students can seek feedback on their performance before the final exam. Students should thus see a link between their preliminary work and the finished long essay.

Through encouragement to start their assignment early, to discuss their preparation with other students and the tutor who will mark the essay, and by verbal and written feedback on their ideas, students should approach the task with more confidence and better planning and produce a more coherent essay (Carless, 2002, in Gibbs & Simpson, 2004-05:20). Also, by eliminating the journal analysis assessment, students (and the teachers/markers, both postgraduate tutors and lecturers) will have more time to focus on the long essay, which should reduce stress levels and in turn the panic that can lead some students to plagiarism. This new strategy in turn fulfils the university’s policy that assessment be efficient (by maximising the benefit for both students and staff), and acceptable to students (by not generating undue stress). By breaking down the long essay into discrete, manageable stages, and providing numerous opportunities for feedback (student-to-student and student-to-teacher as well as teacher-to-student) on students’ performance of these stages, this revised assessment strategy should more readily achieve the stated learning outcomes (analyse historical writing, develop oral and written analytical skills and learn to carry out independent research), as well as encourage students to enjoy further the study and practice of history.

Biggs, J. (1999). Teaching for quality learning at university: what the student does. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Booth, A. (2004). Rethinking the scholarly: developing the scholarship of teaching in history. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 3 (3)247-266.

Brinko, K. (1993). The practice of giving feedback to improve teaching: what is effective? Journal of Higher Education, 64 (5) 574-594.

Brookfield, S. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004-05). Conditions under which assessment supports students' learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education.1, 3-31.

'HSTY 1045'. (2005). Department of History, University of Sydney. HSTY1045 unit of study outline, Semester 1, 2005. Unit co-ordinator: R.Aldrich.

Leach, L., Neutze, G., Zepke, N. (2001). Assessment and empowerment: some critical questions. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 26 (4) 293-305.

O'Donovan, B., Price, M. & Rust, C. (2004). 'Know what I mean? Enhancing student understanding of assessment and criteria'. Teaching in Higher Education, 9 (3) 325-335.

Prosser, M., & Trigwell, K. (1999). Understanding learning and teaching: the experience in higher education. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London and New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

The University of Sydney. (2000 amended 2004). Academic Board Resolutions: assessment and examination of coursework. Retrieved 22 April 2005.

Cindy McCreery obtained her Master’s and PhD degrees in history in the UK. She spent two years as a Senior Research Fellow at the National Maritime Museum in London and worked as a lecturer at the University of Oxford. In 1998 she returned to Australia for a postdoctoral fellowship at UNSW, and later taught history at the University of Newcastle. In 2002, she joined USyd as a Lecturer. Recently, Cindy has become interested in researching how students learn in large first-year units of study, as well as how they develop essay writing skills. She is currently enrolled in the Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies (Higher Education), and hopes to apply what she is learning to both her teaching practice, and to future research projects on learning and teaching. Cindy would like to thank Tai Peseta of the ITL as well as Robert Aldrich and Dirk Moses in History for their helpful comments on this article.

To chat further with Cindy about assessment in History,

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