Skip to Main Content


You are in the main content

By Catie Robertson, JMU CARS Writing Assistant.

Nick Curtis, a student in the Assessment and Measurement Ph.D. program, interviewed Sally Brown and Phil Race. These leaders are well known in the UK for their work in higher education. However, they arrived at their positions in different ways. Their interview sheds light on their successes and approaches to assessment.

Sally Brown, now an independent consultant, began her work with assessment in her forties after obtaining her master’s degree. At the time she was a lecturer at Newcastle Polytechnic in Newcastle, North-East England. In this role, she aspired to lecture on topics such as English literature and poetry. Despite her aspirations, she felt she was unlikely to break into this rather closed community as a late entrant. It was during this time that Sally attended a SEDA (Staff and Educational Development) conference. Here, she fell in love with the atmosphere, people, and assessment itself. She had, “found at last” what she wanted to do when she grew up. And find it she did; Sally is now one of the best-known assessment leaders in the UK. However, she didn’t come into what she regards as her vocation alone. She mentions her three “gurus” who she was lucky to be in contact with in her early career: Peter Knight, Graham Gibbs, and Phil Race.

Phil Race, also a current independent consultant, started in assessment while working as a senior lecturer in physical chemistry. At the same time, he served as a warden of a residence hall. In these two roles he took an interest in students’ struggles with coursework and wanted to help improve their experiences. Applying his scientific background has helped him bring a different mindset to the subject of assessment.Russell

Phil is still very interested in the questions why, what, how, where, when, and who. This scientific approach makes him one of the best assessment leaders in the UK. Phil also attended SEDA conferences, which is where both his and Sally’s paths converged. In fact, Phil and Sally eventually married. “We were friends for ten years, co-authors for ten years, and then when the situation proved right… we got together quite quickly and we married,” said Sally.

Sally and Peter Knight, published Assessing Learners in Higher Education in 1994. In this piece, a metaphor about a barnyard animal has become a brilliant metaphor for assessment work. The phrase, “you don’t fatten pigs by weighing them,” illustrates that program assessment alone does not improve learning. In Sally’s words, “If you want to discover how your student is progressing, metrics alone won’t do it. It’s the nurturing, it’s the feeding, it’s the supporting, it’s the engaging.” This is the basis of formative assessment which must transform students’ behavior, attitude and outcomes if it is to be successful. Summative assessment is not enough to introduce real change to a program, but is still necessary. Sally believes that formative assessment is necessary to transform higher education. It also gives students the confidence to apply their learning to workplace performance. This emphasis on “authentic” assessment ensures that students are more successful in their pursuits. It also makes assessment, as Sally says, “for learning, not just of learning.”

Phil and Sally were also questioned by Nick about the National Student Survey in the UK that has now been implemented since 2005. The National Student Survey is a 27 item nationally-mandated instrument designed to summarize final-year undergraduate student views on their educational experience. The items ask about the entire program of study and how students perceive their learning environment, with core questions about assessment. There is an additional open comment section where students are encouraged to relay constructive feedback about their institution.

 Phil is very interested in questionnaire design, piquing his interest in the survey. He believes many of the questions it asks are, “far from optimal.” Despite this, he believes the survey is helpful because it serves as a window into student experience. This is where the open comments section is especially valuable. Additionally, Phil notes that asking students at this stressful point, the beginning of the second semester in their final year, is problematic. Students are often bogged down with requirements when finishing this important year. Sally’s greatest concern with this survey is that it is recording how satisfied the students are with their experiences. It doesn’t survey students’ actual learning, therefore completely missing a major area of discussion.

However, one certain thing Sally warns of is involving institutional funding in any surveying process. The UK’s Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has a controversial history of linking higher education institutions’ ratings to funding using proxy metrics that have little to do with educational excellence. Sally has noticed that money becomes a motivator of parties that may not have the best outcomes in mind for the students and therefore can skew institutional and individual behaviors.

When asked about what the future of higher education might look like, Sally began with epistemological concerns. She believes the biggest transition occurring in higher learning is a new emphasis on know-how instead of know-what. Students now have greater access to information than ever before. Anyone with access to computers or smart devices has the, “equivalent of the world’s largest encyclopedia in their pockets” according to Sally. Students are now more interested in knowing what they can do with knowledge rather than simply memorizing information and she thinks universities should capitalize on this in the ways they design assessments. Sally uses a photo of an Italian lecture hall from the 14th century to help convey this difference. Books used in those classrooms were chained to lecterns to ensure they weren’t stolen. Students would attend class to obtain information from the lecturer that they could not obtain anywhere else. This is simply not the case anymore. Students are more interested in how they can apply knowledge they have to different contexts and she thinks assessors should be more interested too. Sally believes this has huge implications for higher learning institutes and assessment. Institutions must now navigate the change between largely disseminating information and primarily fostering the application of information to live and meaningful contexts.

Dr.RacePhil echoes this sentiment, stating that future students will no longer be paying for content but for outcomes and experience. How does assessment reflect this transition from knowledge acquisition to application of knowledge? Though there are no hard and fast rules about this yet, Sally’s unicycle metaphor is a good start. If you want to know if someone can ride a unicycle you don’t ask them to list what the unicycle’s constituent parts are, or for a set of instructions on how to mount it, or to write a history of the unicycle .You simply ask them to ride the unicycle and evaluate the performance authentically.

Due to this evolution in what is valued in learning, it is reasonable to consider whether foundational knowledge will still be relevant. Sally fervently refuted the notion that higher education should ever be content-free. The value of integrating disparate elements and knowledge in “new and creative ways” is irreplaceable. This is at the very center of what higher education institutions aim for. Listening, writing, and reading are still of the utmost importance alongside creative ways of articulating and using information. However, the many sources of information available to learners are no longer solely, or indeed mainly, in the classroom. Einstein comes to Phil’s mind when considering this issue. He refers to the famous quote, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” He believes students should leave classes with useable knowledge. He also believes in “activating” learning by energizing students so they are poised to compound their education and carry out ideas.

Sally and Phil may be “retired,” but they are as active in the teaching, learning, and assessment field as ever. Those interested in Sally and Phil’s work can follow them on twitter (@ProfSallyBrown & @RacePhil). The state of assessment in the UK would be very different if it weren’t for these two assessment superstars. In Sally’s words, they have certainly found what they want to do when they grow up.