Towards fairer university assessment: recognizing the concerns of students

Author(s) Nerilee Flint
Publisher Routledge
Published 2011
Pages 176
Price £24.99
ISBN 9780415578134
Reviewed by Mrs Alison Iredale
Review published 19 May 2011

This book is aimed at higher education academics, administrators and managers, researchers, and to some extent undergraduate and postgraduate students. It explores assessment as a determiner of student satisfaction, and is based upon Nerilee Flint’s PhD thesis. A key perspective is that of fairness, and it is refreshing to read a book that has at its core both the principles of distributive justice and the student perspective as a basis of a nuanced discussion on what constitutes fairness. In seeking to understand and inform, rather than to provide a simple prescription for recurring and complex problems for institutions, the book offers an honest response and counter balance to the prevailing neo-liberal policies adopted by publicly funded Higher Education institutions. The authors offer a theory of demonstrating capability based on a grounded theory methodology. It seeks to explain what students take into account when deciding whether an assessment is fair, what they do, and what influences what they do when they judge an assessment to be unfair.

Chapter one scopes the policy context for contemporary universities in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and opens up a philosophical discussion on distributive justice. Given the well-written sections on constructions of fairness and the policy context it is unfortunate that the rest of the book fails to pursue these philosophical and socio-political discussions, preferring to focus on the day-to-day, mainly psychological, perspectives of students as they submit to assessments, and are subject to assessment decisions. Having said that, what follows is a carefully examined and well-structured analysis.

Chapter two provides the background to the research underpinning the book, and research students will benefit from the detailed explanation of Flint’s grounded theory approach to her methodology. It draws substantially on the work of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Glaser (1978, 1992), and contains an interesting justification on the use of vignettes.

Chapter three introduces the theory of “demonstrating capability” generated by Flint's grounded theory approach, where sources of frustration are categorised from the perspective of undergraduate university students. Unclear assessment criteria, seeking clarification from teachers, not understanding a mark, word count confusion, and deadlines will resonate with most readers as they recall their own experience of assessment as undergraduates.  The chapter concludes with the premise that students judge the fairness of assessment by the relationship between the received grade and teacher access and feedback.

Chapter four explains how fairness is decided, from the perspective of students. I found the diagrams to be helpful as they offered a framework for reflection and evaluation of assessment practice on my courses and I particularly appreciated the detailed analysis surrounding the various sections. I found that I used these almost as a checklist of what constitutes good assessment practice, reflecting on my own curriculum, and my professional conduct when marking and giving feedback to students.
Chapter five discusses students’ emotional responses to perceptions of unfairness in assessment decisions. This is a unique opportunity for readers, who may have read several guides to assessment, to grasp the imperative of the student perception. A salutary lesson for teachers and policy makers may be learned from Flint and Johnson’s careful analysis of the data. Here we learn about the emotional context, including levels of desperation, maturity, and concerns over the ramifications of challenging an assessment decision. What would also have been interesting to explore in this chapter beyond the psychological perspective is the socio-cultural context for some students, particularly in relation to Bourdieu’s notions of cultural capital and educational reproduction (Bourdieu and Passeron 1990).

Chapter six provides a summary of the findings from the book, explores implications for teachers and others charged with curriculum development and policy, and promotes fair and equitable assessment policies and practices. Here again is an opportunity for teachers and institution leaders to reflect on their current curriculum policy and practice. Rather than a simplistic recipe for change we are offered insights into student views on assessment, cautioning against a trivial understanding of assessment. Recommendations for further research are offered in terms of improving the likelihood of students taking action in response to perceived unfair assessment, and refining institutional student evaluations. If the foreword hadn’t signaled this already I could have guessed that this book is based on a PhD thesis, and its closeness to the structure of a thesis was a minor irritation for me.

As a teacher educator working with teachers in the lifelong learning sector and HE this book has offered me both a deeper understanding of what constitutes fair assessment from the student perspective, and a framework for discussion with my own student teachers. I would certainly recommend it to colleagues.


Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J C. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London, Sage.