Review: CRADLE Seminar Series #4 2023 — Assessment and student identity formation

CRADLE PhD students Ameena L Payne, Anastasia Umarova, Jessica Lees and Angen Kisworo review CRADLE’s latest seminar, Assessment and student identity formation: Becoming a (dis)abled student through assessment by Juuso Nieminen.

Underpinned by his postdoctoral research at the University of Helsinki, Finland, Dr Juuso Henrik Nieminen discussed how findings from his previous work may be reframed toward an understanding of students’ identity formation through assessment. The seminar was partaken with consideration of, and through, the lens of disability. This seminar was presented and discussed in three parts: 

  1. Theorisation: assessment as a matter of identity 
  1. Empirical findings: becoming a (dis)abled student 
  1. Future directions to assessment research 

In the beginning of his presentation, Juuso asserts that assessment is not only about supporting students’ learning, but it is also a matter of identity formation. He explains that assessment is attached to cultural and social narratives which shape students’ identity. To show how identity formation is shaped, Juuso showed a video which illustrated a Chinese student’s emotions (excitement and relief) after receiving the results of their ‘gaokao’ college entrance examination; this high-stakes assessment serves as a reference for university admission and determines students’ ‘ranking’.  

Juuso espouses Rowntree’s (1987) idea that assessment does not only provide information to students’ abilities, but it is also a mechanism for students to know themselves. As assessment is crucial in constructing students’ identity, Juuso asserts that there is a need to investigate the long-term effects of assessment. 

Assessment both [en]ables and disables

Juuso Nieminen

Juuso explains that this is because students are constructed in relation to the ‘able’ student, and assessment plays a key role here. Juuso appears to exemplify his argument through the social model of disability, a critique of mainstream models of disability. Traditional perspectives of disability aim “to ‘fix’ the disabled person [however,] the social model aims for agency and liberation from the barriers in higher education that privilege non-disabled students” (Payne, Compton, & Kennedy, in press). Juuso’s findings revealed how students with disabilities are ‘othered’ — perceived as “potential cheaters”, “costly burdens” and rendered “ontologically separate” from ‘ideal’ and ‘normal’ students. Consequently, disabled students may view themselves as “the wrong type of learner”. Because assessment tends to be designed by those who are neurotypical, Juuso called for co-created assessment and self-assessment as potential solutions. 

Juuso highlighted three future directions for assessment research: 

  1. A need to understand the processes of identity formation in and through assessment. In this regard, Juuso refers to Barrow’s (2006) idea that assessment links character and intellect. Assessment is cast as a social mechanism that connects students’ abilities and their identities.  
  1. Learning from the concept of inclusive assessment. Juuso highlights that assessment for inclusion is not only about students with disabilities and procedural understanding of ‘inclusion’ but about all learners and how (in)accessible practices influence student identities. Juuso discusses it in more detail in his (2022) paper, Assessment for Inclusion: rethinking inclusive assessment in higher education.
  1. The need for longitudinal research. Identity formation occurs over time and includes both being and becoming. Hence, it is crucial to capture macro and micro moments of disabling and abling that assessment does. 

Juuso emphasised that this work is not easy, but rather, it is complex and “must be intersectional”. This presentation illuminated that in current assessment practice, students often have limited agency in their assessment tasks and designs. Student agency may be the most significant factor contributing to the enabling or disabling nature of assessment tasks and subsequent impact on student identity formation. Juuso suggests that focusing efforts on student agency may be most impactful via assessment tasks such as e-portfolios and journals. While acknowledging that assessment culture may be slow to change, ultimately, we need to be thinking beyond individual assessments towards an higher education environment that embraces programmatic assessment design. 

The seminar was live tweeted by Tim Fawns’, and you can view and engage with his thread by following the below Twitter link: 

If you missed the Seminar, you can catch up on our YouTube channel or our Seminar blog page.

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Upcoming Events

Don’t forget, CRADLE Seminar Series 2023 #5: Investigating productive feedback practices to facilitate student engagement and learning with CRADLE graduates Dr Bianka Malecka and Dr Lasse X Jensen Dr Juuso Nieminen will be held on Wednesday 10 May at 4pm. Be part of the event by registering now.

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