The main purpose of calibration is to maintain and assure standards in a subject area, as well as ensuring that the tasks used are valid assessments of key graduate learning outcomes in a subject or discipline. Calibration is based on the assumption that standards are socially constructed, and it therefore involves dialogue, negotiation and joint decision making. It has been described as a type of inter-institutional external referencing process which complements institutions’ own internal marking and moderation processes (Sefcik et al., 2017). Calibration is a process of peer review carried out by members of a disciplinary and/or professional community who typically discuss, review and compare student work in order to reach a shared understanding of the academic standard which such work needs to meet.
A key purpose of calibration is to assure degree standards at national level and avoid ‘standard slippage’ (Sefcik et al., 2017). Calibration is intended to reassure higher education stakeholders, such as students, employers and the wider community that national standards are consistent with expectations and across institutions. In addition to calibration being an important quality assurance mechanism, it offers important collaborative learning and professional development opportunities to academics (Watty et al., 2014).
Investigations have demonstrated repeatedly that a shared understanding of sector standards may not exist as markers’ (including external examiners’) judgements and personal standards frameworks can vary considerably, both in terms of what is valued and grades awarded, even if detailed criteria or marking schemes are available (e.g. Bloxham et al., 2015). Research has shown, however, that standards are more likely to converge following calibration activities or other forms of social moderation (Watty et al., 2014; O’Connell et al., 2016; Hanlon et al., 2004). The proponents of calibration argue that it turns standards from individually held private knowledge to collegially and community held knowledge (Sadler, 2011; Watty et al., 2014).
Bloxham, S., Hudson, J., den Outer, B., and Price, M. (2015) External peer review of assessment: an effective approach to verifying standards? Higher Education Research and Development 34(6), pp. 1069-1082.
Hanlon, J., M. Jefferson, M. Molan and B. Mitchell (2004) An examination of the incident of ‘error variation’ in the grading of law assessments. United Kingdom Centre for Legal Education (UKCLE).
O’Connell, B., De Lange, P., Freeman, M., Hancock, P., Abraham, A., Howieson, B., and Watty, K. (2016) Does calibration reduce variability in the assessment of accounting learning outcomes? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 41(3), pp. 331-349.
Sadler, R. (2011) Academic Freedom, Achievement Standards and Professional Identity. Quality in Higher Education 17(1), pp. 85-100.
Sefcik, L., Bedford, S., Czech, P., Smith, J., and Yorke, J. (2017) Embedding external referencing of standards into higher education: collaborative relationships are the key. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2017.1278584
Watty, K., Freeman, M., Howieson, B., Hancock, P., O’Connell, B., de Lange, P., and Abraham, A. (2014) Social moderation, assessment and assuring standards for accounting graduates. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 39(4), pp. 461-478.