Reflections on the Postgraduate Certificate in Educational Assessment (PGCA)

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Ewan Brady shares his motivation for applying for the PGCA, providing insight into how the course is structured and how what he learned can be applied to his role as Subject Advisor at OCR. 

Why did I apply for the PGCA?

I was keen to develop my knowledge and understanding of assessment from my time as a teacher and here at OCR. I felt the course would benefit me in my role as Subject Advisor and my future career in education and assessment. Since joining OCR several years ago I’d wanted to apply for the course, however for a long time I didn’t feel I had the time to commit.

Waiting for the right time to apply enabled me to build on the knowledge I had developed in my experience as Subject Specialist for Law and Politics. I was involved in writing the subject content for the new A Levels in Law and Politics and led the development of OCR’s new A Level in Law.

I eventually applied for the course in the summer of 2017 and, having been accepted, I enrolled on the course in October 2017. It was a bit of a shock to the system at the start as it was over 27 years since I had left Glasgow to study at University in Aberdeen and 20 years since I had written my last essay on my PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate in Education) teacher training course.

Ewan Brady

How is the course structured?

The course was made up of two parts across three terms:

  • Unit 1 was about the Principles of Assessment
  • Unit 2 was about the Validation of Assessment

Topics covered included the purpose of assessment, validity, reliability, fairness, validation, trust and accountability, standards, the future of assessment and research methods. We were taught by a fantastic team of tutors from the Faculty of Education and Cambridge Assessment.

There were five online research methods webinars and a weekly online lesson that included readings, questions to answer and follow up discussions on an online forum. I enjoyed each of the learning methods, particularly the day schools where we would attend a lecture from a guest speaker followed up by seminars in groups. It was a great experience getting the opportunity to discuss and debate theoretical and practical aspects of assessment with other like-minded professionals.

I enjoyed the well-planned online lessons which would guide you through the week’s readings with activities to develop your understanding and follow up discussions on the online forums.

I also enjoyed the well-planned online lessons which would guide you through the week’s readings with activities to develop your understanding and follow up discussions on the online forums.

How is the course assessed?

There were two assignments both with word counts of between 3000-4000; a literature review and a small scale research project, both focusing on an issue in assessment you knew well. I chose to write the first assignment on ‘How the changes to A Level Law had affected its validity’ and my second assignment was focused on ‘How the change from coursework to exam had affected the validity of the History Around Us component of Schools History Project GCSE History’.

In each case a question and plan were agreed in advance with a supervisor - who would also provide feedback on your draft assignments. This support was invaluable. Learning how to write an academic essay while keeping to a strict word count was a useful skill to rediscover.

What did I learn from the course?

The PGCA allowed me to build on the knowledge gained in my career in teaching and at OCR. I spent 16 years teaching in Scotland and England – eight in leadership positions in Humanities as a subject leader, curriculum leader and Head of Faculty. I developed a broad knowledge of the principles of assessment and the validation of assessments.
I learned about the key principles of assessment including validity, reliability and fairness. These principles are concerned with quality in assessment – a vital subject for all working in education and for stakeholders including students, parents and policy makers. These are complicated concepts – but I will try to explain briefly here.
Validity and Reliability are two concepts at the heart of assessment which are concerned with quality:
  • Validity is about whether an assessment measures what it is meant to measure, it goes to the heart of what a subject is
  • Construct Validity is concerned with to what extent an assessment tests the construct of a qualification – for GCSE and A Level this would be the subject aims and learning outcomes set out in the subject content
  • Reliability relates to the accuracy of marking – whether a hypothetical student would get the same mark on repeated attempts of the same test and whether different markers would give the same response the same mark
One of the aims of assessment is to discriminate between candidates and place them in the correct rank order with the correct marks/grades. With one teacher assessing one class it is relatively straightforward - with a mark scheme they are likely to mark consistently and put their students in the correct order.When the candidature extends across a whole year group and more teachers are involved this becomes more complicated. For an exam board marking GCSEs or A Levels with perhaps tens of thousands of candidates, and sometimes more, it is yet more complicated again.
However, the process of standardisation, using an approved mark scheme, training and monitoring examiners go some way to mitigate this. In standardisation, we are essentially training all examiners to mark at the same standard as the Principal Examiner.

It is not easy; these are complicated and quite philosophical matters but that makes it worthwhile.

There has been some discussion in recent years about the accuracy of marking and grades. Different forms of assessment e.g. essays and multiple choice questions are a good way to think about this. As essays are marked subjectively there can be some variation in the marks that are awarded by different examiners. On the other hand, multiple choice questions would give very accurate marks as answers are right or wrong. However multiple choice questions are not always suitable for measuring higher level skills such as analysis or evaluation, so for some subjects they are less valid.

How has the course impacted my professional practice?

While studying the course I often found myself reflecting on what is the best way to assess and how to structure qualifications and assessments – exams and/or coursework, linear or modular. I have found that since starting the course the way I think about assessment has changed as has the way I talk about assessment with colleagues and with teachers. I suppose I have become a bit of an assessment expert - although with concepts such as validity it really is a case of a ‘bit of an expert’. It is not easy; these are complicated and quite philosophical matters but that makes it worthwhile.

The course has encouraged me to go further, and in the future, I aim to broaden my career in assessment, perhaps working in curriculum or qualification development. I won’t be going on to do a Master's - after my undergraduate degree and three postgraduate qualifications I think I have done my time. I was delighted to submit my second and final assignment in July 2018 and subsequently pass the course. However, I do hope to continue to learn, building on the PGCA.

About the author

Ewan Brady joined OCR as a subject specialist in June 2014. Since joining OCR Ewan has been responsible for a number of subjects including Law, Government and Politics and Sociology. Ewan led the redevelopment of our new AS and A Levels in Law for first teaching in 2017. He took over responsibility for Religious Studies as Subject Advisor in 2017.

Changes are being introduced to the PGCA for the 2020/2021 intake. The new Postgraduate Advanced Certificate in Educational Studies: Educational Assessment will now be a 15-month course worth 90 credits towards a Master’s degree. Students are now only required to attend four day schools in Cambridge, with most of the learning taking place online. There will be three units, each with an assignment. If you interested in finding out more, visit our PGCA webpage.

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