Student assessment methodologies related to the EHEA

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This paper concerns university teachers' evaluations of their students' competences (knowledge and skills) and discusses student-centred and competency-based higher education in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The argument is that a dramatic shift of focus has taken place in European higher education, from teacher-centred to student-centred education, and teachers in this system need to familiarize themselves with this shift and the related concepts. For example, the curricula and assessment methodologies in today's universities emphasize competences and focus on what students can perform and how these competences can be related to work. In order to acquire a comprehensive understanding, knowledge about the historical roots behind student-centred education and competency development may be required, and this paper attempts to provide some of this information. With these new insights, a choice will need to be made: should these trends be resisted and the old methods of providing courses be adhered to, or should the winds of change be accepted and adaptations be made - or perhaps the best choice lies somewhere in between these two options? Regardless of one's emotions, such a personal choice should be based upon and motivated by the best information available.

The Bologna Process and the EHEA

The European Higher Education Area, EHEA, is an international project in Europe and beyond, in which higher education systems are made more transparent and in sync with one another. Founded in 2010 as a result of the Bologna Declaration (1999), it currently comprises 47 national states and a number of consultative organizational members. The historical roots of the Bologna Process can be traced back to a number of earlier agreements; it is important to pay attention to these in order to fully understand the processes and the EHEA of today.

The 1997 Lisbon Recognition Convention and the 1998 Sorbonne Declaration

The Lisbon Recognition Convention is an agreement between a number of member states of the Council of Europe and a number of important states in the field of higher education, including, for example, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA. The Convention stipulates that degrees and periods of study must be recognised "unless a substantial difference can be shown" (Lisbon Recognition Convention, 1997, p. 7) by the institution that is charged with recognition. The Sorbonne Declaration, signed in 1998 by four European countries (France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom), was an agreement regarding higher education with the purpose of coming to a common understanding and working together to encourage study periods abroad, to improve excellence in study and research, to develop a common understanding of teaching and learning and to encourage cooperation. In order to enable comparison, the Sorbonne Declaration put forward a system of cycles and a system of credits (the European Credit Transfer System, ECTS). The Declaration ends with a call to other states "to join us in this objective and … [to] all European Universities to consolidate Europe's standing in the world through continuously improved and updated education for its citizens"(Sorbonne Declaration, 1998, p. 3).

The 1999 Bologna Declaration and the ECTS system

The 29 countries that signed the Bologna Declaration in 1999 agreed to support the ideas expressed in the Sorbonne Declaration and to co-ordinate policies in order to reach a number of objectives, particularly to "establish the European area of higher education and to promote the European system of higher education world-wide" (Bologna Declaration, 1999, p. 3). Among the main stakeholders in the Bologna Process-a process implemented from 1999 through 2010-were the European University Association, the European Association of Institutions of Higher Education, the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, the Council of Europe, the European Commission, UNESCO, the European Students' Union, and the various government ministers responsible for higher education (Heinze & Knill, 2008). The stakeholders held a number of biannual meetings in Paris (1999), Prague (2001), Berlin (2003), Bergen (2005), London (2007), and Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve (2009).

The Bologna Declaration is not a legally binding document; instead, it is an agreement in which the participating countries voluntarily synchronize their systems of higher education based on ideas previously expressed in the Sorbonne Declaration (1998). This synchronization implies that students' qualifications are defined in terms of learning outcomes, rather than in terms of the length of study, which, in turn, means that the basic unit has shifted from the number of professor contact hours to student workload. It also requires the adoption of determined levels of higher education qualifications, for example the bachelor's and master's degrees.

The European Credit Transfer System (ECTS), which was discussed in both the Sorbonne and the Bologna declarations, is based on the workload required by the average student to achieve the objectives of a course, that is to say, to successfully complete the work required and pass the obligatory examinations, which in turn are based on the course's syllabi and expected learning outcomes. The ECTS is an instrument implemented to recognize students' study-periods, but it is important to remember that the purpose of the original Declarations, including the introduction of the ECTS system was not simply to assist students. Another-equally important-purpose was to sharpen Europe's competitiveness, as Adam (2001) reminds us. The politicians and policy makers did not draft the Sorbonne and Bologna declarations based on unselfish philanthropy, rather they were concerned "about the nature and competitiveness of European higher education" (Adam, 2001, p. 292).

Student-centred education and learning outcomes

The terms student-centred education and learning outcomes (Otter, 1993; NCIHE, 1997) are given prominent places in the Bologna Process and in the documents released by the higher education ministers. The Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué from 2009, for example, discusses the importance of student-centred learning; in it, the ministers stipulate that student-centred learning "requires empowering individual learners" and "new approaches to teaching and learning", as well as "effective support and guidance structures and a curriculum focused more clearly on the learner" (Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué, 2009, p. 3). Student-centred education includes the possibility for students to choose their own study paths during their years at higher education institutions and departments. The ministers acknowledge this and conclude that the curricular reform taking place in the EHEA will "be an ongoing process leading to high quality, flexible and more individually tailored education paths" (Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué, 2009, p. 3). From reading the Communiqué, it is clear that the ministers are confident that student-centred learning should be the goal of the curriculum reforms during the Bologna Process. The term learning outcomes is also prominently discussed in the ministerial communiqués, such as the Berlin Communiqué from 2003.

Competence-based education

The concept of competences has been used in various educational settings over the last decades, both in the USA and in Europe. In the context of the Bologna Process, the term was used in the Bologna Declaration, which stated that "a Europe of knowledge" was an important factor for growth and for providing Europe's citizens with "the necessary competences to face the challenges of the new millennium," (Bologna Declaration, 1999, p. 1). The concept was also extensively used in the Tuning Educational Structures in Europe project. The aim of the Tuning project, which began in 2001, was to tune the educational structures in European higher education and to invite debate regarding "subject-specific and general competences" (Tuning, 2002, p. 3). At the Prague Ministerial meeting in 2001, it was stated that Europe's citizens should be able to "effectively use their qualifications, competencies and skills" throughout the EHEA (Prague Communiqué, 2001, p. 1). It is interesting to notice that the Prague Communiqué uses the term "competencies", instead of "competences", unlike other communiqués-it is not clear if this was a conscious decision from the ministers.

Four years after the Bologna Declaration, the concept of competences was also discussed in the Graz Declaration (2003), published by the European University Association (EUA), where a continued development of a common definition of competences was emphasised. Later the same year, when the ministers responsible for higher education met in Berlin, they acknowledged the argument put forward in the Graz Convention (Berlin Communiqué, 2003). Thus, the Berlin Communiqué states that the member states should "elaborate a framework of comparable and compatible qualifications" (Berlin Communiqué, 2003, p. 4) and that this framework should describe qualifications in terms of learning outcomes and competences. In the same communiqué, the ministers also declared the need to reaffirm the Lisbon Recognition Convention and to enhance the competitiveness of European higher education.

The EUA's next important document, the Trends-IV Report (2005), was published prior to the meeting of European higher education ministers in Bergen in 2005. The report indicated that "some scepticism" existed in certain parts of Europe towards the idea of competence-based education. The report also addressed the fact that differences regarding teaching approaches and "the degree to which student-centred learning [was a part of] ...the everyday life at universities" prevailed (Trends-IV Report, 2005, p. 48). The ministers attending the 2005 Bergen meeting took note of the results and suggestions presented in the Trends-IV Report and discussed the need for continued work in the EHEA. An overarching framework for qualifications was adopted for the undergraduate, master and post-graduate levels, as well as descriptors for each cycle, "based on learning outcomes and competences" (Bergen Communiqué, 2005, p. 2).

In 2007, competences were briefly mentioned in the London Communiqué, in which the European higher education ministers concluded that higher education should play a strong role in "raising the level of knowledge, skills and competences in society" (London Communiqué, 2007, p. 5). In this Communiqué, the ministers discuss the ways in which developments have brought them "a significant step closer to the realisation of the European Higher Education Area" and mention that this area has been developed in a manner that will "facilitate mobility, increase employability and strengthen Europe's attractiveness and competitiveness".

Competences were also briefly mentioned in the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué in 2009. The Communiqué, which was agreed upon in April 2009 by the ministers responsible for higher education in the then 46 countries of the Bologna Process, discussed the importance of employability and asserted that "higher education should equip students with the advanced knowledge, skills and competences they need throughout their professional lives" (Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve Communiqué, 2009, p. 3).

In March 2010, the ministers of the countries participating in the Bologna Process adopted the Budapest-Vienna Declaration and officially launched the European Higher Education Area. The ministers continued to acknowledge the importance of providing students with the opportunity to acquire "knowledge, skills and competences" and agreed that the learning environment should "foster student-centred learning" (Budapest-Vienna Declaration, 2010, p. 2). Credit was also given to the original Bologna Declaration of 1999 and its vision for 2010, in which students would benefit from fair recognition of their qualifications.

The impact of the Bologna Process in the EHEA

Thus far, student-centred and competency-based education and students' competences on the pan-European policy level have been discussed. However, it is equally important to address these aspects from regional and national perspectives in order to fully appreciate and understand the challenges posed to teachers and staff at the institutions and departments that constitute the EHEA.

An increased pressure on higher education institutions and departments

The everyday decisions made at higher education institutions are influenced by complex issues, making it difficult to anticipate forthcoming changes and the practical implications of these changes (Newton, 2003). The Bologna Process, and the creation of the EHEA, has increased academics' workload. Moreover, increased competition between different higher education institutions to recruit students and staff has been observed. Rapid and radical changes in educational methods have also taken place as a consequence of the significant developments in computer and Internet-based education. The new type of students, who are much more familiar with utilizing the net in order to obtain information, puts new demands on the institutions of higher education in terms of innovative learning methods, such as open and distance learning, with support from information and communication technologies (ICT). These demands are coupled with an increased pressure on higher education institutions, directors and heads of departments to be accountable and to pass the audit from various authorities and governing bodies. In sum, these trends add to the overall challenges faced by educational providers who deal with issues related to teaching and learning on a daily basis in order to plan and execute high quality education and student assessments.

The lengthy introduction process - an example from Portugal

The introduction of the Bologna reform within each member state has been a lengthy process. In Portugal, for example, the implementation of the Bologna process has taken quite some time and has caused stakeholders a certain amount of trouble. One reason for these problems can be attributed to "the detailed and prescriptive traditions of the Portuguese legislation", according to Veiga & Amaral (2009, p. 57). In a 2006 survey of higher education institutions in Portugal, Veiga and Amaral (2009) demonstrated that universities had high expectations "of more horizontal mobility activities" on the master's level after the Bologna Process was implemented. However, this expected increase in mobility has not manifested itself, partly as a result of problems with "the articulation between cycles" and "some lack of coherence between the different types of masters being developed" (Veiga & Amaral, 2009, p. 61). Veiga & Amaral also report issues associated with the incorrect use of the ECTS system in Portuguese higher education. Veiga & Amaral's (2009) data indicate that the priority among many institutions was to move from a teaching paradigm to a student-centred learning paradigm, stating, "Portuguese higher education institutions saw Bologna as a window of opportunity to introduce pedagogic and curricular reforms without targeting [other reforms] to the goals of Bologna" (Veiga & Amaral, 2009, p. 62). Veiga and Amaral concluded that the implementation of Bologna in Portugal has been "achieved in name only" (Veiga & Amaral, 2009, p. 67), as a consequence of the speed by which the Bologna Process was implemented and the lack of information and legislative support from the government.

The challenges of faculty development and training - an example from Spain

Diaz, Santaolalla & Gonzalez (2010) conducted a study of attitudes among faculty and of the perceived training needs among these professors, to respond to the challenges of the EHEA. The study, which included 257 university teachers in humanities, social sciences, experimental sciences, health, and technology from the Complutense University of Madrid, focused on the EHEA and policy making in general. In particular, the study focused on the knowledge and attitudes among these faculty members and the perceived training needs for the teachers based on the requirements of the EHEA. The results show that approximately one third of the teachers report that they possess only superficial knowledge about the EAHE, and approximately one third state that they are not sure how the EHEA-induced changes will affect them as teachers. 66% of the sample indicated that there is a need to change teaching methods, but at the same time 57% do not think that the structural conditions of the institution and their departments will support the development work needed to fit the education that is being offered to the requirements of the EAHE system. Based on their results, Diaz, Santaolalla & Gonzalez (2010, p. 112) states that "faculty training causes a lot of passion to surge" and that it probably will make it even more difficult to design this type of programs.

The use of the concept of competence-based education

The term competence-based education has been contested, and certain individuals have argued that it is simply a term used by policy makers for political and social reasons, rather than resting on a scientific basis. Hodge (2007), for example, notes that the term competence-based (or performance-based) education has been used for decades to mean different things, and claims that policymakers in Europe currently use it as a buzz word and as a conceptual basis for redesigning curricula and learning settings within the EHEA, based on a political agenda.

Indeed, the term competence-based (or performance-based) education has long been used in various educational settings and by different organizations, such as the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE). For example, the AACTE appointed a Committee on Performance-Based Teacher Education in the early 1970s, which issued a list of characteristics of successful performance-based education (Elam, 1971). According to this list, competences to be demonstrated by the learner, e.g. a student, should be stated in order to be able to assess the learner's behaviour. The criteria to be used in this assessment should also be explicit and should describe the levels of competences . Moreover, the instructional programmes, that is to say, the courses, should help develop learners' competences , and the assessment of the student's competences should utilize performance as the primary source of evidence (Elam, 1971).

At least a portion of the historical roots of the concept of competence-based education lies in the USA, the Cold War era (1950-1970), and the technological competition between east and west (Hodge, 2007). The initial success of the east, with its Sputnik programme at the end of the 1950s, for example, was a thorn in the west's side and in its education and training programmes. In the USA, extensive investigations and reorganizations of schooling and professional programmes were undertaken. One result of this check-up was that the educational focus shifted from academic knowledge to practical and applicable competences and useful outcomes. Teacher education in the US was also affected by this investigation, as educational programmes were reorganised. The teacher education programmes were reformed to focus more on individual requirements and actual work requirements, and, as a consequence, changes in assessment also took place, with a stronger emphasis on evaluating performance and observable outcomes. In the late 1960s, for example, the American government issued instructions to the institutions responsible for teacher education to develop new curricula with a stronger focus on performance and behavioural outcomes, competences to be learned and the evaluation of these performances, outcomes and competences (Hodge, 2007).

Assessment and grading in the EHEA

Thus far, the concepts of student-centred and competency-based education in the EHEA have been discussed. Our attention will now turn to university teachers' evaluations of their students' competences.

Different assessment formats

Methods of assessing and grading undergraduate students vary across Europe (Sullivan, 2002; Karran, 2004 & 2005). Numerous approaches to assessment and assessment methods testing a range of skills and abilities exist. The most common method is to let the students write exams, essays or reports, but there are many other approaches used for assessment, such as self- and peer assessment and workplace-based assessment in off-campus locations. It is important for teachers to utilise the optimal approaches and methods, based on the courses' curricula, and to give students a mix of approaches and methods, thereby enabling them to demonstrate the range of their abilities.

Traditionally, it is the teacher who assesses the students, but tutors in supervised vocational training practice or manager off-campus may also examine and grade the learning progress of students, assuming that they are prepared for this task and that they receive support. Regardless of who assesses the students, it is important that the evaluation is based on clear and available criteria and defensible evidence (Brown, 1999).

Scoring and grading students

In higher education, there are numeric scores and grades. Grades are often given in the form of letters (or some other descriptive element) and are applied to particular performances. A passing grade is often achieved when certain criteria, designed to establish whether students have reached a minimum level of competency, are met.

The grading of students, i.e. the process by which a teacher assigns values to a student's performance (for example 1-10 or A-E), plays a significant role in higher education. Grades are important to such interested parties as potential employers, Ph.D.-programme admissions committees and scholars, who analyse the effects of educational settings (Davies & Graff, 2005) or who analyse the predictive validity of grades, that is to say, to what extent grades from courses can predict future performances in graduate courses and in professional life (Taylor & Albo, 1993; Gonnella, Erdmann & Hoja, 2004). But above all, grades are important to the students themselves. Previous research confirm that students hold strong views about assessment and grading, and these views influence the ways in which students approach learning and studying (Sambell, McDowell & Brown, 1997).

Student-centred assessment

In the European Higher Education Area, assessment is regarded as something meant to enhance students' learning (Leathwood, 2005). Therefore, assessment regimes and formats are beginning to change, becoming formative rather than merely summative. In addition, the possibilities of using a variety of assessment techniques, including self- and peer assessment and problem-based learning and assessment techniques, deserve to be explored (Segers & Dochy, 2001). The problem, from the perspective of teachers who are used to multiple choice questionnaires and similar tests, is that these modern assessment forms are perceived to have lower levels of reliability and validity. Furthermore, assessment in the EHEA will also be more practical and non-academic, rather than merely scholastic and for the sole purpose of preparing undergraduates for post-graduate studies.

During the last decade, interest among educational providers in questions regarding assessment and examination has increased, as well as in how different methods of assessment affect student learning (Wilson & Fowler, 2005; Leathwood, 2005). It has become more and more common for university and college teachers to use formative assessment, rather than just summative assessment, to enhance student learning (Segers & Dochy, 2001). Formative assessment is an evaluation whose purpose entails modifying and/or improving an educational course or the students' learning environment, based on information obtained during the course. Summative assessment, on the other, refers to the traditional method of assessing students; it takes place at the conclusion of a course, with the purpose of determining the course's effectiveness and the students' grades (Roos, 2005).

The relationship between grades and future workplace success

Research focusing on grades and workplace performance after graduation makes use of two theories: cognitive skills theory claims that students develop their cognitive skills during their time at the university and that their levels of performance are visible in their grades. These achievements then lead to success in the workplace, and, since productivity is rewarded with increased earnings, "a positive relationship should exist between academic achievement and earnings" (Donhardt, 2004, p. 281), as "the more educated the employee, the more productive he/she is… and that employers reward more highly educated workers with higher pay" (Donhardt, 2004, p. 273). Meanwhile, Certification theory claims that job applicants' certificates (degrees and diplomas) are what matters to employers, rather than grades. According to this theory, grades have no influence on future earnings.

Donhardt (2004) studied earnings' outcomes by exploring the prediction and growth of earnings over the first 3 years following graduation. Grades were the measure of academic accomplishment, and earnings were indicative of the value ascribed to an individual. Donhardt wished to determine whether achievement in college, as measured by grade point average, can predict the growth of earnings over time. He expected "grade point average to be key in the relationship" (Donhardt, 2004, p. 281). Nevertheless, his results indicated that grade point average had little impact on earnings. GPA was not a significant variable and had very little correlation with earnings. Nor did students with high grades experience significantly higher growth of earnings over time when compared with students with lower grades. Donhardt concluded the certification theory, which claims that job applicants are often screened based on their university degrees, since degree certificates designate the student as a hard worker, to be more plausible. This finding is nothing new to researchers in higher education. In previous research, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991), for example, have demonstrated that a positive association exists between having a college or university degree and success in the workplace.

Looking ahead

The next Ministerial Meeting will be hosted by Romania in Bucharest on April 26-27, 2012. At this meeting, the ministers will investigate the progress that has been made in the Leuven/Louvain-la-Neuve agenda and will strive to drive it forward. The following ministerial conferences will be held in 2015, 2018 and 2020. What can be expected in the near future with respect to higher education in Europe? Competency-based education and student-centred assessment methodologies will most certainly continue to be utilized, just as the merchandisation of higher education seems likely to continue. Global economic factors will continue to influence educational systems and the labour markets, and higher education institutions will face even fiercer economic competition from one another.

This paper has described the general agreements and the international character of the Bologna Process; the various actors and organisations involved have only been superficially outlined. Many more structures and factors impact the Bologna Process and affect the EHEA. For the institutions and departments, it is vital to be conscious of structures and factors on the local level, for example in the planning and implementation of professional development and training for university teachers and other staff. In these efforts, it is important to acknowledge, for example, "the teachers' own needs, the possible differences associated to scientific scopes, and academic and age category", as Diaz, Santaolalla & Gonzalez (2010, p. 117) reminds us.