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“All too often we test students as individuals”

24 June 2018, at 3:09pm

Summertime, and the living is… well, pretty stressful if you’re a student and it is exam time! We’ve all been through them, haven’t we? GCSEs, A levels, innumerable tests at vet school. What are all these exams for? To test whether we have managed to take in all that information thrust at us in lectures and practical classes. Educationalists will tell you that this is a view of assessment that is well past its sell-by date. IQ tests, the eleven plus, psychometric testing; that was a time when intelligence was considered to be innate and thought to be accurately assessable with tests that defined how much information was recalled months after it was taught. 

Now though, this is considered very shallow learning. What we want to impart is a deep understanding that comes from grasping the links between topics and the foundation on which individual facts are based. All too often we test students as individuals sitting on their own in examination halls or singly answering questions posed in a viva examination. 

It was years ago that Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Soviet psychologist, suggested that the key to assessing education is not what a young person can do on their own, but what advances they can make when helped, be that by an educator or one of their peers. This is what he called a person’s zone of proximal development. 

How might that work with vet students? Our final year students all undertake a major elective with a supervisor. This year one of my students investigated the increase in prevalence of cataract in dogs in New Zealand compared with dogs in the UK. Another is assessing how easy owners find it to give their dogs eye drops with the aim of developing a tool to improve ocular drug delivery. A third is looking at the welfare of birds involved in the British Trust for Ornithology’s ringing survey. What a great trio of studies – and that’s just a tiny proportion of the whole year’s projects. 

The issue is how we should mark such a project. Do I leave it until the student has finished their work and then grade them on what they have done unaided? Or do I work with them through the year making helpful suggestions as to how they might optimise what they are doing? Some would say that helping them in this way is annulling the assessment which should evaluate what each student can do on their own, compared with the other students. That is what educationalists term “norm-referencing”. Since students cannot change the grades of their peers, they cannot really influence their own grades either. 

Alternatively, we can assess students against criteria of what they achieve when given assistance from their supervisors. Some consider this too messy an approach to student evaluation. Yet it’s one more attuned to the real world. You will not take a new graduate and leave them on their own to fend for themselves in a branch surgery on their first day. Or I very much hope you won’t! 

You want a vet who will be able to grow and mature under your instruction. So that is the sort of ability we want to develop in our students. And that’s true of vets who have students seeing EMS too. Are you helping students seeing practice with you to develop, giving them tasks to do and encouraging them to stretch themselves in consultations or surgeries? 

Assessment should not just be a test of how far the student has come, it should be a way of stimulating them to develop more. I say we try to ensure that’s the case for each student we encounter!

Associate Lecturer, Veterinary Ophthalmology at St John's College, University of Cambridge

David Williams, MA, VetMB, PhD, CertVOphthal, CertWEL, FHEA, FRCVS, graduated from Cambridge in 1988 and has worked in veterinary ophthalmology at the Animal Health Trust. He gained his Certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology before undertaking a PhD at the RVC. David now teaches at St John’s College, Cambridge.

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