Keynote Address: Bruce Macfarlane

Assessment, student performativity and the freedom to learn

Professor Bruce Macfarlane University of Bristol, UK

Prof. Bruce Macfarlane

The student engagement movement has become a worldwide phenomenon and national student engagement surveys are now well-established internationally. Curriculum initiatives and assessment practices closely associated with student engagement policies include compulsory attendance requirements, class contribution grading, group and team working assignments and reflective exercises often linked to professional and experiential learning. These types of assessment practices often grade students for their ‘time and effort’ and commitment to active and participatory approaches to learning. They are justified by reference to both active learning as a new pedagogic orthodoxy along with the improvement of retention rates and achievement levels at an institutional level. However, many of these assessment practices constrain the extent to which higher education students are free to make choices about what to learn, when to learn and how to learn. Forms of student performativity – bodily, participative and emotional – have been created that demand academic non-achievements to be acted out in a public space. A higher education is, almost by definition, intended to be about adults engaging in a voluntary activity but the performative turn in the nature of student learning is undermining student rights as learners – to non-indoctrination, reticence, choosing how to learn, and being trusted as an adult – and perverting the true Rogerian meaning of ‘student-centred’. This lecture will be based on arguments presented in my 2017 book, Freedom to Learn (Routledge).

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education and Head of the School of Education at the University of Bristol, UK and distinguished visiting professor at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. He has previously held chairs at a number of universities in the UK and Hong Kong. Bruce’s publications have developed concepts related to values in higher education such as academic freedom, the ethics of research and teaching, the service role, and academic leadership. His books include Freedom to Learn (2017), Intellectual Leadership in Higher Education (2012), Researching with Integrity (2009), The Academic Citizen (2007) and Teaching with Integrity (2004).

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