Navigating the Ethical Minefield of Assessment in Higher Education

Mike Leigh and Lucy Mathers



The ethical dimension in the assessment of student performance has been recognised for some time. Rowntree (1977), for example, states that effective assessment must be valid, reliable, feasible and fair and that the interrelationships between these factors must be understood. In this context the concept of fairness is taken to be that every student has an equal chance of getting a good result and that extraneous considerations cannot influence the final result. In order to ensure fairness, the design and marking of an assessment should avoid any bias from such sources as gender, ethnicity and disability. Within Higher Education (HE) this is of particular importance as lecturers have the dual role of being both teacher and arbiter (Macfarlane, 2004) in that the majority of assessment in HE does not involve public examinations. Much of the published work on assessment design and management has been focused strongly on pedagogy. For instance, Biggs (2007) considers the constructive alignment of learning with assessment and its effects on student motivation; whereas MacDonald (2008) discusses the role of assessment activities within a blended learning environment. Where the importance of fair assessment has been recognized the ethical issues tend to be narrowly scoped and focused on specific concerns. For example, Fleming (1999) discusses bias in marking students’ written work; Wakeford (2003) looks at making assessment decisions more defensible in the face of student appeals; while others consider the role of the Internet on plagiarism in assessment (Thompson and Stobart 2002; and Hinman, 2008).

This study, however, firstly identifies a wide range of ethical aspects that may arise during the design and management of assessment activities. Secondly, it discusses the results of an investigation into the levels of awareness and the attitudes of both staff and students to the ethical dimensions of assessment that have been identified. Finally, it incorporates the analysis from the investigation to provide guidance to staff and students to promote ethical actions in assessment activities.

Research Design:

A literature survey was undertaken which, together with the results pertaining to online assessment from previous investigations (Leigh, 2006; Mathers and Hay, 2010) were used to ascertain a wide range of ethical concerns pertaining to a broad set of assessment types in Higher Education. A questionnaire was used as an efficient method of ascertaining the views of a large number of students on the identified issues. Focus groups (Bryman, 2008) were used to further explore selected students’ awareness of the ethical issues identified from the questionnaire and their attitude towards them. Participants of these groups were chosen whose profile represented a cross-section of the divergent backgrounds of the university students including gender, age, ethnicity and particular learning requirements. A series of semi-structured interviews (Denscombe, 2007) were carried out in order to explore staff awareness and attitudes towards the selected ethical concerns. The profile of these participants was chosen to capture views of staff, with differing levels of experience, who have administered a broad range of assessment tools at various levels of study. Also included in the staff interviewed were the Faculty Disabilities Support Coordinator and the Academic Practices Officer responsible for dealing with plagiarism cases.

Preliminary Findings:

At the time of preparing this abstract, the focus groups and semi-structured interviews are not complete; however from the work completed to date some comments can be made on the findings. For example, it is apparent that the students participating in this study have some interesting gaps in their awareness of ethical issues pertaining to assessment activities. Although, they recognise some unethical practices such as plagiarising source materials and cheating in examinations many are unaware of other issues such as equality of access to assessment mechanisms, unless they are directly affected themselves. Similar attitudes and levels of awareness were seen around the issues of student behaviour when undertaking group assessment activities. However, in these cases students tended to have stronger opinions when they were affected by an issue.

It is also clear from the work to date that there is a close relationship between pedagogical and ethical issues in the successful implementation of assessment activities. This paper will identify those relationships and explore their implications for both staff and students. It will also provide guidance on dealing with ethical dilemmas that may be encountered in assessment design and management.


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Denscombe, M. (2007) The Good Research Guide: for small-scale social research projects 3rd ed. (Maidenhead, Open University Press).

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Mathers, L. and M. Hay (2010) Developing autonomous learning in students: creating and communicating an appropriate assessment strategy. New and aspiring programme leaders workshop series, De Montfort University, 24 November 2010.

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