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Assessment Revisited

John Heron

Chapter 4 from Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, edited by David Boud, London, Kogan Page, 1988.

Rationality and power

The prevailing model for assessing student work in higher education is an authoritarian one. Staff exercise unilateral intellectual authority: they decide what students shall learn, they design the programme of learning, they determine criteria of assessment and make the assessment of the student. The student does not participate in decision-making at all about his learning objectives or his learning programme, nor in setting criteria and applying them in assessment procedures. He is subject to the intellectual authority of an academic elite who have the power to exercise a very high degree of social control on the exercise of his intelligence and on his future social destiny by intellectual grading.

The issue here is a political one; that is, it is to do with the exercise of power. And power is simply to do with who makes decisions about whom. I have power over people if I make unilateral decisions to which they are subject. I share power with people if I make decisions on a bilateral basis in consultation with them. The idea of having a rational power over another’s rationality seems to me to be internally contradictory. Exercise of rationality involves dialogue, discussion, and reciprocity of exchange, in which each party to the dialogue gives reasons for a point of view and has the inalienable right rationally to assent or dissent from the view put forward by the other party. As a rational being I can only consult with others about decisions that affect the exercise and assessment of their own rationality. Their rationality is impugned if I do not honour it as a party to the decision-making process.

Does the student entering higher education have a fully-fledged rational capacity? If he does not, if he is in some sort of pre-rational developmental stage, then of course I can offer the argument in loco parentis: it is my job as staff member to make rational decisions on his behalf that will enable him to emerge from a pre-rational to a fully rational stage of development. I cannot consult him because he is not present with a sufficiently developed intelligence to make an adequate contribution to the consultation. But does anyone seriously hold that the average 19-year-old human being entering higher education does not have fully fledged rational capacity? Surely not, since it is the general presupposition of higher education that the student has the intellectual competence to acquire a fully rational grasp of a particular discipline or subject area.

How is it, then, that he is not entitled by the prevailing system to acquire and actively exercise a fully rational grasp of his own learning objectives, of the programme that is relevant to achieve them, of criteria of assessment and the actual process of assessment of his own work? He is seen as rationally competent to grasp the discipline taught by his academic superiors and to respond appropriately to their assessment. Yet, paradoxically, he is not seen as rationally competent to participate in determining his own academic destiny, nor in assessing his own competence.

The traditional arguments advanced to justify this state of affairs are something like the following. (i) Academic staff are the culture carriers of our civilization: they sustain and develop the values and intellectual standards of our central bodies of knowledge. (ii) Adequately to grasp and learn to perpetuate these values and standards requires a process of student apprenticeship and initiation in which staff unilaterally model, exemplify and apply to students the values and standards. (iii) Only when thus unilaterally initiated can the student himself eventually become a culture carrier and initiator of future generations of students (Peters, 1966).

This initiation model is hierarchical and authoritarian. It does not deal with the argument that if a student is rationally competent to grasp a major discipline at the adult level, then he is competent ipso facto to participate in decisions about the educational process whereby he can grasp it, and in decisions about whether he has grasped it; and that if he is not invited to do these things together, his rationality is thereby impugned – and offered a distorted development. The initiation model is a rationalization of the invalid exercise of intellectual power over other rational beings.

I am not arguing that if a student is deemed competent to grasp an adult discipline he should also be deemed competent to decide all on his own the best way of going about grasping it or to decide all on his own that he has adequately grasped it. I am not declaring the redundancy of teachers, of academic guides and mentors. I am arguing that for the young adult, three things go together: the capacity to get to know the content of a discipline, the capacity to know how to get to know it, and the capacity to know that he has got to know it. Or put in other words: the capacity to learn, the capacity to know how to learn, the capacity to know that he has learned. For a well-rounded education, these three facts of intellectual capacity need to be developed together. And they can be developed by a significant amount of self-directed practice, facilitated and guided by, and in collaboration with, teachers. The initiation of students therefore needs to be more reciprocal and consultative, with students not simply learning their subjects but also participating in decisions about how they learn them and in the assessment of their learning.

And as we shall see in a later section, I do not advocate that everything about the educational process is to be a matter of negotiation and consultation between staff and students. If absolutely everything is negotiable, then the negotiator stands for nothing, is not committed to any principles or values, in short, is not really educated. For the mark of an educated person, I believe, is that through study, reflection, dialogue and experience he or she has at any given time a considered commitment to certain values which provide the stable ground from which free discussion and negotiation proceed.

What, then, are further arguments against the current system of unilateral intellectual authority exercised by staff over students? In the following section I will present a radical critique in a somewhat extreme form, and will redress the balance toward the end of the section, while retaining much of the force of the critique.

A radical critique of unilateral control and assessment

Staff unilaterally assess students, some of whom then become staff and unilaterally assess more students, and so on. Where did it all start? However much it may be obscured by a variety of other cultural factors, for any domain of human inquiry there is a source point when its originators flourished through self-directed learning and inquiry and through self and peer assessment. These or their successors at some point become the original unilateral academic assessors and commence their role with a significant threefold act of assessment. They assess and continue to assess themselves and each other as competent in having mastered their branch of knowledge through self-directed inquiry. They assess themselves as competent to assess others. And they assess others as relatively incompetent to be self- and peer-assessing and self-directing in learning and discovery. They thus set up a unilateral assessment and education system from which they necessarily exempted themselves, and in the absence of which one may assume their own vigorous discovery, excitement in learning and originality flourished. This is a phenomenon within the politics of knowledge. Knowledge is always potential power. If I am among the first to establish knowledge in some field, I can use that knowledge to establish a power base in the social order, by discriminating unilaterally for or against others on the grounds of my judgements about their relative competence or incompetence. If I can make others, through their hunger for power, collude with my unjust discrimination toward them (even though it may be exercised in their favour), then I have established a new profession, a body of experts, who sustain their power and perpetuate the injustice through the myth of maintaining excellence. The founding treason is that founders through this professional dominion betray their own origins in self-directed learning, self and peer assessment.

Unilateral control and assessment of students by staff mean that the process of education is at odds with the objective of that process. I believe the objective of the process is the emergence of an educated person: that is, a person who is self-determining – who can set his own learning objectives, devise a rational programme to attain them, set criteria of excellence by which to assess the work he produces, and assess his own work in the light of those criteria – indeed all that we attribute to and hope for from the ideal academic himself. But the traditional educational process does not prepare the student to acquire any of these self-determining competencies. In each respect, the staff do it for or to the students. An educational process that is so determined by others cannot seriously intend to have as its outcome a person who is truly self-determining.

Authoritarian control and assessment of students breed intellectual and vocational conformity in students. Given a pre-determined syllabus, learning in a way dictated by others, taught by those who make the continuous and final assessment often according to hidden and undisclosed criteria, the average student has an understandable tendency to play safe, to conform his thinking and performance to what he divines to be the expectations of his intellectual masters, to get through his final exams by reproducing what he believes to be staff-approved knowledge and critical judgement.

But there is not only conformity in terms of the intellectual content of the students’ work. There is a subtler, more insidious, more intellectually distorting and durable conformity. For the student absorbs the whole authoritarian educational process, and those students who go on to become future staff reproduce the unilateral model with remarkable lack of critical acumen and awareness. It is notorious that academics, who normally would pride themselves on their ability critically to evaluate the assumptions on which a body of theory and practice is based, are so uncritical and unthinking about the educational process which they mediate.

The authoritarian educational model is thus an agent of social control at the higher education end of the spectrum of conditioning procedures to which the person is subjected in our society. It precipitates into the adult world a person whose intellect is developed somewhat in relation to the content of knowledge, but truncated, distorted and oppressed in relation to the politics of knowledge, the process of truly acquiring it. A general social and political attitude of conformity and a relative sense of powerlessness is reinforced by a partial sort of intellectual competence: ‘To survive I must go along with the system and divine what is expected of me. I must accept the fact that I am here so that other people can do it for me and to me and tell me whether I have made it or not. And if I subscribe to all this with sufficient intellectual application I may if I am lucky arrive at a point where I can dictate the system that other people have to conform to.’

Unilateral control and assessment of students by staff generates the wrong sort of motivation in students. They tend to become extrinsically motivated to learn and work. The degree is a ticket to status, career, and opportunity in the adult social world; it is designed by others, awarded by others and withheld by others, according to criteria of others. The student’s intellectual masters manipulate his motivation without ever involving him as a self-determining being. External rewards and punishments tend to motivate learning rather than intrinsic factors such as authentic interest and involvement in the subject matter, the excitement of inquiry and discovery, the internal commitment to personally considered standards of excellence, self- and peer-determined debate, dialogue and discussion.

Such extrinsic motivation to learn can breed intellectual alienation: the student becomes habituated to exercise his intellect in a way that is divorced from his real interests, curiosities and learning needs. The acquisition of knowledge loses the excitement of discovery and becomes the onerous assimilation of a mass of alien and oppressive information. Such alienation during the learning process while acquiring knowledge and skills, can extend after qualification and graduation, into vocational alienation: the person exercises his vocational role in a way that is cut off from his real needs, interests, concerns and feelings, and hence uses the role in his human relations with his clients somewhat defensively and rigidly. There are two extreme variants of this: the professionalization of misfits and the misfit of professionalism. The former occurs when the extrinsic attractions of a profession’s power and status seduce into it those whose real interest and abilities lie elsewhere. The latter occurs when the professional blindly and unawarely tries to close the gap between self and role by compulsively and inappropriately ‘helping’ his clients.

An authoritarian educational system is only able to focus on intellectual and technical competence, on the cultivation of theoretical and applied intellect. Personal development, interpersonal skills, ability to be aware of and work with feelings — all these are excluded from the formal curricular educational process, since an authoritarian system represses — in staff member, in student, and in the relation between them — the kinds of autonomy, reciprocity and mutuality required for the building of such development, skills and ability.

The roots of this situation lie deep in the philosophical past, but a past that is still present with us in a very pervasive way. Our educational system rests on an ancient, hierarchical view of the person. In Aristotelian terms, intellect is that which supremely differentiates man from animals, and the cultivation of this prime differentium, in its purely theoretical form, is that which constitutes the highest virtue. In Platonic terms, intellect rules over the nobler emotions, which under the guidance of intellect rule over the baser passions. This authoritarian, hierarchical role anciently ascribed to intellect is with us still today.

The prevailing norm about feelings, in our educational culture and indeed in our culture at large, is that they are to be controlled. The message is unmistakable, coming over in all kinds of tacit and explicit ways: the intelligent, educated adult is one who knows how to control feelings. But if control is the only guiding norm, it can rapidly degenerate into suppression, repression, denial and then blind displacement of feelings. The authoritarian academic projects unawarely his denied feelings on to the students: hence academic intransigence about reform, for if academic control of students is a way of acting out denied feelings within, it will not lightly be given up. Only significant personal development among staff can liberate them from this particular compulsion.

The unilateral model of control and assessment in education is a form of political exploitation, of oppression by professionalism. The academic maintains the myth of superior excellence and educational expertise from which the student is necessarily debarred and which it would be irresponsible and dangerous for the student in any degree to practise. Thus the academics, by the control and assessment system they run, condition students to see themselves as inadequate and dependent with respect to all major decisions about the educational process (learning objectives, programme design, assessment). So staff maintain their power as a privileged elite to determine unilaterally the future social destinies of their dependent students. Psychodynamically, the academics deal unawarely with their own distressed dependency needs by conditioning students to be dependent on them. The result is that students are oppressed and manipulated by educationally extrinsic factors, by being assessed and graded – all in the name of ‘higher’ education.

Finally, of course, unilateral assessment methods are notoriously unreliable. Different examiners marking the same scripts show significant variability; the same examiner may vary considerably the stringency with which he marks on one occasion compared to another. All this adds up to a very palpable injustice –so long as the assessment is unilateral. The only way to avoid such injustice is to make the student party to the assessment procedure, and hence party to the general unreliability. I cannot cry injustice when I have been a free negotiating participant in the assessment of my work

The whole of this radical critique as presented above is something of a caricature. It overstates the case. So I will briefly mention some of the main considerations which countermand it and present a more balanced view.

Academics do continually engage in a variety of informal and more formal equivalents of self and peer assessment, if not with students, then at any rate amongst themselves: in offering their written work for comment and judgement from their peers, both before and after its presentation or publication. And this at least provides a model for students in their professional work after graduation.

The traditional educational system has produced and continues to produce persons who may be to a greater or lesser degree self-determining. This is not least because, whatever its defects of method, central to its teaching is the importance of rational critical thinking, of assessment of views and of evidence. So the central precepts which it teaches may survive, more or less impaired, the methods by which they are taught.

And the corollary, of course, is that some academic tutors do genuinely seek to elicit in their students sound reasoning, judgement and critical appraisal, and do genuinely rejoice in students who exhibit originality, intellectual competence and independence of judgement.

An increasing though still relatively small number of academics are becoming critical of the assumptions underlying the traditional educational process which they are mediating to students. Staff development and innovation is a growing movement in higher education.

Despite the rigidity of the educational system, both staff and, to a lesser extent, students can become intrinsically motivated and committed to pursue standards of excellence in pursuing their disciplines. And some tutors do exhibit great sensitivity, skill and humanity in dialogue, both intellectual and personal, with their students. Not all academics or professionals use their roles defensively.

The positive account is therefore not inconsiderable. But in my view the general thrust of the radical critique prevails and requires an alternative model of the person, a redistribution of educational power, and a new approach to assessment.

An alternative model of the person

The hierarchical, authoritarian model of intellect-in-charge referred to above has served its historical and cultural purpose. The time is ripe for an alternative, democratic model: that of equal human capacities which mutually support and enhance each other – intellectual capacities for understanding our world and ourselves, affective capacities for caring for and delighting in other persons and ourselves, conative capacities for making real choices about how we want to live, relate to others and shape our world. On this model, intellectual competence, emotional and interpersonal competence and self-determining competence go hand in hand. You cannot properly cultivate any one without at the same time cultivating the other two. Single-stranded development necessarily involves distortion of that strand.

Staff-student collaboration and consultation about the educational process –that is, with respect to objectives, programme design and assessment – require, for all concerned, the exercise of discriminating choice, the cultivation of intellectual grasp, awareness of and skill in managing feelings, and other interpersonal skills. Thus it honours the alternative, democratic model of the person.

The democratic model also generates a more sophisticated set of guiding norms for the management of feeling. It proposes not only conscious control of feelings of all kinds when appropriate, but also spontaneous expression of positive feelings when appropriate; conscious, intentional discharge or abreaction of distress feelings at appropriate times and places and with appropriate skills; the transmutation of tense emotion through art, meditation, symbolic imagination and related methods.

The ability to work with feelings in this comprehensive and flexible manner is a precondition of political liberation. The interlocking compulsions to oppress and wield power, and to be powerless, dependent and helpless, are rigidities of character structure which each person needs to dissolve in himself by uncovering and dispersing the hidden affect that holds them in place. To exercise power with others in collaborative ways requires the ability to be aware of and take charge of feelings – to dismantle tendencies to act out denied feelings through politically oppressive or submissive behaviour. Skills in control, expression, catharsis, and transmutation are the intra-psychic pillars of political release.

The redistribution of educational power

The redistribution of power in educational decision-making is what is at stake: who decides what about whom, with respect to all the many and varied aspects of the educational process. The main parts of the process are well-known to all of us. I enumerate them here as a reminder that there is a very wide canvas on which to experiment with different decision models. (1) Objectives: (i) outcome objectives relating to what knowledge, skills and attitudes students and staff are to acquire from a course; (ii) process objectives relating to what sorts of behaviours and experience are to go on during the course to achieve intended outcomes. (2) The programme: which puts together (i) topics; (ii) teaching and learning methods; (iii) time available; (iv) human resources; (v) physical resources. (3) Assessment: of student performance, continuous, periodically through the course, final at its end. (4) Evaluation: of teaching and of the course as a whole, again both continuous and final. Ancillary to the educational process as such are: the selection of staff and of students; the administrative structures that support it; and the underlying philosophy and principles which it exemplifies.

Elaborating a point already made in the opening section, it is absurd to suppose that everything on this list must be a matter of staff-student negotiation and consultation. It is absurd for two reasons, a strong and a weak one. The strong one stems from the fact that staff are permanent members of the educational institution; students are transient members. If staff have really thought through the matter, there will be some parts of the educational process which will be non-negotiable because they exemplify principles to which staff are committed. These parts define the sort of educational institution that staff are dedicated to realize. It may be that students are to be significantly self-assessing, or self-pacing or whatever else. These parts, stated in the course prospectus, constitute the non-negotiated educational contract to which prospective students are invited to subscribe, and which defines the lesser, negotiable contracts – the way in which decision-making about the educational process is to be shared by staff and students. Of course, any such initial contract need not be totally rigid, but sooner or later the full-time educationalist, qua moral being, will stand for principles, values and their concomitant procedures which are necessary conditions for entering into collaboration and negotiation with other staff and students. They may change and develop as a function of interaction with past students, but for the prospective student they are a given, which define the culture into which he is entering.

The weak reason is that the transition from authoritarian control to collaborative control needs to be gradual. Conditioning induced by the traditional model is not undone in one term, one course or even one decade. And there is scope for a great deal of variety and experiment in effecting the transition. Thus if we consider the main parts of the educational process – objectives, the programme, assessment, evaluation – then within each of these with their many components, and as between each of these, decision-making can occur according to one of seven basic models.

1.Staff decide all issues  
2Staff decide someStaff with students decide some
3Staff decide someStaff with students decide someStudents decide some
4Staff decide some Students decide some
5 Staff with students decide someStudents decide some
6 Staff with students decide all 
7  Students decide all

On the left are unilateral decisions by staff, on the right unilateral decisions by students, in the middle collaborative staff-student decisions. Model 1 is the traditional unilateral control model. Model 7 would make staff redundant or at most resource persons waiting to be called on by students on terms unilaterally determined by students. Model 6, I have already suggested, is the absurd one: if everything is negotiable, then staff do not stand for anything, have nothing on offer. The most comprehensive model is model 3; and within itself it can encompass the widest range of alternatives along a spectrum from staff control to student control (Heron, 1977).

All this, I am sure, is a necessary precursor to looking at issues of assessment. Assessment is the most political of all the educational processes: it is the area where issues of power are most at stake. If there is no staff-student collaboration on assessment, then staff exert a stranglehold that inhibits the development of collaboration with respect to all other processes. Once varying mixtures of self, peer and collaborative assessment replace unilateral assessment by staff, a completely new educational climate can be created. Self-determination with respect to setting learning objectives and to programme design is not likely to make much headway, in my view, without some measure of self-assessment.

Self and peer assessment

What, then, is assessment for? Traditionally it has had a two-fold purpose. First, to provide the student with knowledge of results about his performance with regard to the content of the course; this is an aid to revising past learning, and to preparing future learning. This purpose is fulfilled by assessment of student work during the course. Secondly, it awards the student a certificate of intellectual competence, theoretical and/or applied, which accredits him in the eyes of the wider community to fulfil this or that social or occupational role. This purpose is fulfilled typically by the final exam. Nowadays continuous assessment often contributes a significant percentage to the final assessment, as well as the final exam – in which case the second purpose pervades the whole course. But the traditional focus in both purposes is entirely on what the student does with the content of the course.

If the student is seen as a self-determining person, and thereby significantly self-assessing, then assessment will include the process of learning as well as work done on the content of learning. Thus if – to whatever degree – I set my own learning objectives, devise my learning programme, set myself and perform appropriate tasks – then I can assess my objectives, the way I have put the programme together, how I have worked, as well as the work I have done. We are therefore immediately presented with the importance of process assessment, as well as content assessment. Assessing how I learn and how I provide evidence of what I have learned is really more fundamental than assessing what I have learned. The shift to self-direction and self-assessment starts to make process more important than content. Procedural competence is more basic than product competence, since the former is a precondition of providing many good products, while the latter is one off – each good product is strictly a witness only to itself.

Next, a self-determining person can only be so in appropriate relations with other self-determining persons. Persons are necessarily persons in relation and in dialogue, where each enhances the identity and self-discovery of the other. On this view, self-assessment is necessarily interwoven with peer assessment. I refine my assessment of myself in the light of feedback from my peers. My judgement of myself is not subordinate to that of my peers. Rather, I use what my peers say to acquire the art of balance between self-denigration and self-inflation. A just self-appraisal requires the wisdom of my peer group.

In a self and peer assessment group each person assesses himself before the group (using common or autonomous criteria – see below), then receives some feedback from members of the group on whatever it is that is being assessed, and also on the self-assessment itself. The process can also occur reciprocally in pairs, but a group of six or eight gives more scope for peer impact. The person receiving peer feedback is invited to use it discriminatingly to refine his original self-assessment. On one model there is no negotiation with peers about a final agreed assessment: the primacy of self-assessment is affirmed, together with the assumption, elegantly borne out in practice, that a rational person has no interest in deluding himself about his own competence and will use the insights of his peers to attain a just self-appraisal. On another model self and peers negotiate until agreement is reached about a final assessment.

Of course to participate effectively in this process requires a measure of affective and interpersonal competence. I must be willing to take risks, to disclose the full range of my self-perceptions both positive and negative, to confront others supportively with negative feedback, to discriminate between authentic peer insights and unaware peer projections, to trust others, and so on. Hence the importance in practice of the alternative, democratic model of the person mentioned earlier, in which intellectual competence, emotional and interpersonal competence, and self-determining competence go hand in hand.

The student qua self-determining person, then, engages in a combined self and peer assessment procedure that looks at both the process and the content of learning, but gives more weight to process than content. The purpose is threefold: (i) to raise awareness of, and improve mastery of, the process of learning in all its many aspects; (ii) to raise awareness about the range of, and to improve mastery of, content; and (iii) at some appropriate point along the road to accredit himself or herself in association with the wisdom of his or her peers as competent to offer this or the other service to the wider community.

I have used this self and peer assessment model for one or other of the three purposes mentioned in a variety of continuing education settings, such as co-counselling teacher training courses, and in-service courses for a variety of different professional groups. These courses are run as peer learning communities (Heron, 1974) in which I function as facilitator and participant, but in neither case do I have any special role as staff assessor. My function as facilitator includes, inter alia, enabling the group to work through an acceptable self and peer assessment procedure. These courses are obviously not within the aegis of the traditional undergraduate and postgraduate educational bureaucracies: they are not awarded degrees and are not subject to unilateral assessment by staff and external assessors. Hence they have provided a very useful crucible for important innovation and experiment, using an experiential research model (Heron, 1977, 1981), in which everyone involved is both student and subject on the one hand, and tutor and educational researcher on the other, thus combining within his own person a fundamental dialogue and a collaborative inquiry, as well as engaging in a collaborative inquiry with his peers.

A fundamental extension of the model takes it into the heart of professional life. Self and peer assessment is in my judgement the central way of maintaining and developing standards of professional practice. A group of professional peers meet to pick out the central procedures of their daily practice, to determine criteria for performing those procedures well, and to devise some form of self-assessment whereby they can sample their own daily work and assess it in the light of the criteria. They then go off and apply the self-assessment format to their daily work; and meet together at a later date to take turns to disclose their self-assessment findings to their peers and receive systematic feedback on the disclosure. Such peer review audit of professional practice has a strong if not exclusive emphasis on process assessment – hence the very great importance of building up skills in such process assessment from the very beginning of professional education and training. I have introduced peer review of this sort to doctors and dentists (Heron, 1982) and to teachers, researchers, managers and others.

Sometimes I use a truncated version in which the self-assessment is done mentally and retrospectively on past practice, then shared with peers: in this way the whole procedure can be done at one session. The full-blown model can run through many cycles of individual work and self-assessment, peer review, individual work and self-assessment, peer review – and so on. As such it is an educational model, a professional development model and an action or experiential research model in which the procedures of professional practice are developed through action and review and the criteria for assessing them are likewise developed. There is clearly an important future for this approach.

I wish now to mention briefly the four parts of the assessment process itself. First, there is a decision about what to assess: whether process or product and then which bit of process or which product. Secondly, there is the all-important phase of deciding which criteria to use in the assessment. Thirdly, there is a decision about how to apply the criteria, whether individually and serially, whether collectively and simultaneously; whether to weigh the criteria equally or differentially; whether to have pass/fail results only or whether to have a range of qualitative or numerical grades. Fourthly, there is doing the assessment itself: applying the criteria and coming out with the result. If what is being assessed is the assessment process itself, then we have a fifth part.

The most critical part other than doing the assessment itself, is deciding which criteria to use. Because of the prevailing authoritarian system, people are not used to criterial thinking. Some staff in traditional institutions have difficulty: they do not make the criteria which they unilaterally use explicit to themselves and each other, let alone to their students. So an important part of facilitating self and peer assessment groups is consciousness raising about criteria and criterial thinking. I have explored two alternative strategies about criteria with these groups. One is to start with each person generating criteria and then, through sharing and discussion, move on until there is an agreed set of criteria to which everyone subscribes, and which each person subsequently applies in his self-assessment and which all use in the peer feedback. The other strategy is for each person to generate, say, three primary criteria; these are then shared, and each person in his self-assessment uses any three from the total list – he may retain his own and others’, or use others’ criteria entirely; peer feedback is given in terms of whatever criteria he has used on himself.

The first strategy emphasizes common standards, the second strategy emphasizes autonomous standards, which also have the benefit of the pool of peer wisdom. Which emphasis is appropriate depends on the sort of group, on what is being assessed, and on the purposes of assessment in relation to the wider community. In my judgement, common standards are more appropriate when technical issues are the focus of assessment; whereas autonomous standards are more appropriate when personal and interpersonal issues are the focus. Again, common standards are more appropriate when there is a high level of accountability to the wider community for the provision of technical, expert services; autonomous standards apply more when accountability is primarily to oneself and one’s intimates for personal values being realized.

Collaborative assessment

Collaborative assessment I see as an important intermediary stage between traditional unilateral assessment of students by staff, and the sort of self and peer assessment model I have used in continuing education. In collaborative assessment, the student assesses himself in the light of criteria agreed with his tutor, the tutor assesses the student in the light of the same criteria and they then negotiate a final grade, rating or judgement. This model can be introduced and applied quite quickly to students’ course work by staff working in the authoritarian system – although it then stands in somewhat glaring contradiction to the model applied in final examination assessment. Still, if course work counts for some percentage of final marks, then the student has had some small say in his own degree award.

Typically, in the current educational climate, collaborative assessment is made on students’ work. It could, however, even within the traditional system, be about process issues: thus the assessment could be about how the student plans his time, paces himself over time, uses available resources (library, lectures, seminars, his academic tutor, other students), takes notes, reads books, writes essays, and so on. Indeed it is typical of the restricted educational awareness that widely prevails in higher education that so little attention is paid, relatively, to how students manage their end of the learning process. But it is probably best to start practising collaborative assessment on students’ work handed in. There is a weak model and a strong model.

The weak model applies where criteria of assessment are already laid down, made explicit to staff and written out, and where the system does not allow for any current modification of them either by staff or students. In this case the tutor can make the following moves. (1) Inform the students of the criteria and explain that they are non-negotiable and why. Share your own views on both these matters. Agree with students on the most acceptable interpretation of criteria that you and they find problematic or objectionable. (2) If a rating or grading method is laid down for how to apply the criteria, then discuss this with students and seek to reach agreement on the most appropriate way of using this. (3) Invite the student to assess his or her work using the criteria and the agreed method of applying them. He can do this first mentally and then verbally. (4) You then assess the student’s work using the criteria and the agreed method. Compare, contrast and discuss the two assessments. (5) Negotiate and agree a final assessment.

The strong model applies where there are no criteria of assessment laid down, and what they are and how they are used is left to staff discretion. There is usually some sort of grading system, so whatever the criteria are, their application has to be fitted into this. But there is space here to launch students into criterial thinking, to encourage them to start thinking about setting themselves standards of excellence by which to assess their own work. In this model stage (1) is different, but stages (2) through (5) are the same as in the previous model. There are also at least two alternative versions of stage (1): ( la) Where students have great difficulty in thinking in terms of criteria, present them with your own list, ask them to discuss each item, to seek clarification on it, to raise arguments for and against it, to propose modifications, deletions or amendments to it, to raise issues about the list as a whole – any items not included that should be included – and so on. Continue until there is general assent. ( lb) Where students are better able to think in terms of criteria, invite each one to work out his own list, have the students share their lists and then share yours with them. Collate all the lists, continue discussion and debate until there is general assent to a final composite list.

What are you to do if students insist on criteria that you find totally unacceptable? There are three basic solutions (1) You can set the thing up so that you have final powers of veto. It is important to tell students in advance about this. (2) You can reason with them until they grasp and are persuaded by your arguments about the irrationality of their criteria. (3) You can invite them to use the irrational criteria in assessing their own work and so discover by experience whether they really believe in them and want to use them. In my judgement this is the best strategy. It means of course that you and the student will not be using identical sets of criteria in assessing the student’s work. But this can be interesting too.

In my experience of using collaborative assessment in one-to-one tutorials on undergraduates’ essays, there is a definite tendency — not large, but noticeable —for students to mark themselves down. This is not surprising, given that years spent at the receiving end of unilateral assessment make for a somewhat negative self-image. But once the process is under way, students show an authentic conscientiousness and thoroughness in the way they handle it.

For the future, I see collaborative assessment as the next step forward, first with respect to students’ course work, then with respect to final essays and examinations. As more contract learning comes in and students start to determine their own learning objectives and learning programmes to a greater or lesser degree, then collaborative assessment will tend to have as its primary focus how the student is handling the whole learning process as distinct from what it is that he has learned, although assessment of products will presumably always be relevant and important.

Collaborative assessment between staff and student can also be interwoven with a variety of self and peer assessment procedures on the student side. Thus a student can first go through a self and peer assessment exercise with his fellow students, then take the assessment that emerges from the exercise into a collaborative assessment session with his tutor. A more adventurous model involving greater staff-student parity is one in which the tutor participates directly in the self and peer assessment session between the student and his fellow students, and the tutor, the student concerned, and his peers negotiate together until an agreed assessment is reached.


Peters, R.S., (1966) Ethics and Education, London: Allen and Unwin.

Heron, J., (1974) The Concept of a Peer Learning Community, University of Surrey: Human Potential Research Project.

Heron, J., (1977) Behaviour Analysis in Education and Training, University of London: British Postgraduate Medical Federation.

Heron, J., (1981) ‘Experiential Research Methodology’ in P. Reason and J. Rowan (Eds), Human Inquiry: A Sourcebook of New Paradigm Research, Chichester: Wiley.

Heron, J., (1982), ‘Peer Review Audit’ in Assessment, University of London: British Postgraduate Medical Federation.