Unmasking bias in assessment

lambert-schuwirthFlinders University researchers are developing a series of videos to help teachers avoid forming biases about their students based on first impressions.

Professor of Medical Education Lambert Schuwirth (pictured) and Dr Lisa Schmidt, a Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at the Centre for University Teaching, have received a $50,000 grant from the Federal Government’s Office for Learning and Teaching to develop a training program to improve the validity of judgements in observation-based assessments, such as oral exams and work placements.

The one-year pilot project aims to help university examiners, particularly those who are new to the job, to recognise assumptions they have formed in the assessment of students and develop skills to overcome their prejudices, both positive and negative.

“When you have to form an opinion about a student, there are certain factors that might influence your judgement,” Professor Schuwirth said.

“First impressions, last impressions, things you forgot about someone’s performance and things you commit to your memory that didn’t actually happen, otherwise known as the error of commission, can all affect a student’s grade,” he said.

“But very experienced assessors are much less susceptible to these biases so the project is about helping new assessors become experts quicker.”

Focusing on first impressions and the error of commission, the video lecture and accompanying vignettes will show various scenarios where the examiner could be susceptible to making a biased judgement and suggest simple techniques to prevent the problem, such as note-taking during oral presentations, keeping a list of assessment criteria and challenging one’s judgement by trying to find information to the contrary.

“It’s something that happens quite often and it needs to be addressed but it’s more a matter of how we can make sure people become expert assessors more quickly,” Professor Schuwirth said.

“Being a good examiner is much like being a good doctor, there’s a similar sort of expertise you need and you obtain those skills by recognising and correcting problems.”

Professor Schuwirth started working at Flinders under the University’s Strategic Professorship scheme last August, moving from Maastricht University in the Netherlands where he not only earned his medical degree but held an academic status in medical education for 20 years.

“One of my main goals here at Flinders is to ensure the delivery of courses to medical professionals is continually improving and that we build more collaborative links with other schools and groups within the University, interstate and internationally,” he said.

“Medical education is rapidly developing as a scientific discipline on its own and if we want to remain at the forefront we need to make sure we’re working hard.”

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