Is it assessment or anatomic dissection?
Despite being a ‘false beginner’ in teaching practice I had to re-train to gain my PGCert credits to obtain my HEA Fellow status over the past two years. (Not yet required in Scotland, where I worked prior to joining UEA). I attended several modules of our MA in Higher Education Practice here at UEA, and shared the journey with a number of colleagues from different schools and discipline. One of the most verbal and enthusiastic contributors teaches anatomy in the School of Medicine and spends a lot of time dissecting bodies to teach our future doctors how the human body system works. He is really a fun guy; I guess it takes a little sense of humour if you embrace such a challenging profession. (I did not use to be squeamish when younger, but I am now. I could not do it, I think).
Well, we have been talking a lot about assessment in our sessions, and we are just out from an intense examination marking period, so the association comes spontaneous: is assessment (summative assessment especially) an anatomic dissection exercise?
Many colleagues believe that good practice consists in indicating explicitly the number of marks awarded for each part of the questions asked to our students in every paper we give out to them. Marking guidelines become even more complex: “give three points if students write this…drop two points if students do not say that”. There are great advantages in doing so: (1) if you have a large number of colleagues involved in marking the same set of scripts you can guarantee fairness and uniformity, (2) you can help less experienced markers with very firm criteria, (3) you can point students to important passages of their examination papers.
Nice heart here, it works fine and pumps the blood beautifully. But lungs are not working so well and oxygen does not transfer to the blood. The gallbladder is inflamed, it should better be removed, we can do without it! So the heart is worth 5 points, lungs 4 points, gallbladder just 1 point. Ok…the patient would live, even with a few respiratory problems. Dissection session terminated, put down your knives clean up and move on to the next.
But the heart is not just a muscle, and the brain not just a set of synapses. Can we really ascertain what is more important? And what happens when we look at a human person all together, at her thoughts, emotions, interactions with other human beings? Along with anatomy our medical students learn about compassion, communication with the patient, personalised treatment and information. Are we giving all this to our students when we are marking?
Anonymous marking places a nice clean sheet over the body to dissect, covers modesty and contributes to guarantee that all bodies are seen as the same. But –my colleague confirms- not all human beings are the same. True anatomy wisdom can teach us about similarities as well as differences, and good doctors will have to deal with both: choosing treatments and interventions that are tailored to each individual case. On top of that, patients hate being anonymous to their doctors; they want to be recognised, and they want to be informed about their health status clearly, honestly, and personally.
I will stop now with the Medicine metaphor (my knowledge in the field really ends here). But I am wondering whether marking procedures could do better than being imprinted to anatomic dissection exercises. Assessing our students’ performance and abilities, as showcased by their scripts, should consist of much more than adding up scores gained across answers and sub-answers. How does the script look like in its entirety? How is the writing style? Is there internal coherence? What is our gut feeling as experienced markers? (And how can we help our junior colleagues to develop their own gut feeling?) When teaching Macroeconomics I tell students that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. (Microeconomists will excuse me here, I hope). I wish I could do the same when I mark scripts, and in fact, I do…whenever I can!