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Assessment, Truth and Religious Studies


This paper addresses the question of what should determine whether students’ answers to closed questions are marked as correct or incorrect in the context of formal religious education, and when their answers to open ended questions should be given more or less credit. Drawing on insights from Craig Bourne, Emily Caddick Bourne and Clare Jarmy, I argue that a combination of judged truth, and a range of well-argued cases about what ought to be believed given certain premises should constrain these assessment practices. Furthermore, I argue that if we cannot find any consistent, nonarbitrary account of how judgements of correctness and merit are in fact being made in the context of formal religious education, then this tells more against current practice’s inconsistency and arbitrariness than against these constraints on how judgements of correctness and merit should be made.

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  1. 1.

    I will use ‘Religious Studies’ (‘RS’) to denote ‘formal Religious Education’ just because that is the term used by theorists that I draw on heavily in what follows. If asked what constitutes a religion, I can only emphasize the heterogeneity of religions, with, for instance, some religious traditions differing in the centrality with which doctrines, rituals or texts feature, with some lacking any sacred texts at all. I should note also that whether some essentialist reduction might truly be offered of religion is an open question (Tillson 2018), for the heterogeneity of the ways that water manifests does not preclude its having H2O as a single essence.

  2. 2.

    I acknowledge however, that the manner of RS that I endorse below is a practical impossibility in some contexts, such as illiberal, homogenous authoritarian contexts.

  3. 3.

    A sceptic may contend that some dimensions of development are in principle immeasurable, not reliably measurable, or not reliably measurable given practical constraints. To keep the sceptic on board with our discussion, we can circumvent her concern by encouraging them to ask a slightly different question. Whether or not we can or should assess students’ learning, which student performances (if any) should be regarded as requiring correction or concurrence, and why, and which student performances (if any) should be regarded as more accomplished and which as less?

  4. 4.

    Bourne et al.’s discussion is more bounded than my own and is meant to be inclusive of test papers across different GCSE and A Level exam boards in England and Wales, and, more generally, of what teachers regard as being correct in Secondary RS. Their discussion also focuses specifically on the correctness of answers to closed questions. That said, the consequences of their discussion could be said to generalize to different discrete RS institutions in other educational jurisdictions.

  5. 5.

    It is perhaps worth flagging how what is correct and what should be marked as correct might come apart. While it is ultimately truth that makes an answer correct, really, we should mark as correct whatever we have most reason to think is true.

  6. 6.

    I would like to thank a reviewer for pointing out that a recursive relationships can obtain between what faith communities believe and what institutions say that they believe. It might be that a sloppy but prestigious academic claims (falsely) that some doctrine is considered true among a faith community, that some members of the faith community hear from this seemingly reliable source that this doctrine is part of their community’s orthodoxy and come to the doctrine as true. Here the misdescription becomes accurate through a self-fulfilling prophecy. This does nothing to undermine the distinction, but does highlight an interesting possible interaction.

  7. 7.

    I would like to thank two anonymous reviewers for drawing my attention to this point.

  8. 8.

    For criticism of this view, namely that teaching with respect to belief should be constrained by the Epistemic Criterion, see Cooling (2014), Hess and McAvoy (2015), Warnick and Spencer Smith (2014) and Gregory (2014). For defences, see Hand (2008, 2014a, b) and Tillson (2017). For a defence of the good of knowledge among the aims of education more generally, see Adler (2003). These epistemic aims are rejected on political grounds by Clayton and Stevens (2018); on what they call the Acceptability Requirement, “education policy must be regulated by principles that are acceptable to reasonable people” (forthcoming). The concept of reasonableness they have in mind is that of having a “baseline commitment to treating others as free and equal, and to social unity”. On their view, appeals to what is epistemically decisive are sometimes divisive among politically reasonable people and to be rejected when they are, and where religion is conconered they often are. These epistemic aims are also rejected by Clive and Jane Erricker due to considerations they take to tend toward some kind of relativism (2000), for a response to their position, see Tillson (2013) and Wright (2000).

  9. 9.

    We should distinguish between assertability from the point of view of human knowledge, and from the student’s point of view. It is from the point of view of human knowledge that students are to be marked as correct or incorrect. What there is no reason to believe from the point of view of human knowledge, might conflict with what there every reason to believe from their point of view. This view allows that in such cases, while students should be corrected, they can at the same time being given points for ‘working out’.

  10. 10.

    Thought operates with concepts (e.g. the concept of a Christian) and concepts have application (e.g. to a particular person). It is an interesting question as to how the limits of concepts are to be defined. For concepts to do the work that we require of them, namely to allow differentiated thought about elements of the world, they must have limits of application. Sadly, I have no reflective account of concepts, where they come from, whether they are mutable, or of how sharp their boundaries of application are or need to be.

  11. 11.

    Whereas “vagueness is deficiency of meaning” ambiguity is a lack of “univocal meaning” (Fine 1975, 265). To illustrate, consider how while the application of the term ‘bark’ may be sometimes be ambiguous between (among other things) ‘the outer surface of trees’ and ‘the sides of a river’, the application of the term ‘stealing’ is vague when it comes to unreturned borrowed books (Hand 2018).

  12. 12.

    I am grateful to Ian Cullen for conversations on this topic, and for offering me this example.

  13. 13.

    I hope that this strikes the reader as platitudinous, but for elaborations and defences of this view see Tillson (2013), Lowe (2002, 2008) and Williams (2005).

  14. 14.

    So too can RS properly concern itself with truth claims of about texts, beliefs, and practices concerning religion, and with specifying the content and evaluating the truth of beliefs and of texts concerning religion.

  15. 15.

    That said, one can usually make reasonable inferences from what someone believes to other things that people are likely to believe, and one might also reason in the following way “If most Xs believe Y, most Xs ought also to believe Z.”.


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Tillson, J. Assessment, Truth and Religious Studies. Stud Philos Educ 38, 195–210 (2019).

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  • Religious education
  • Assessment criteria
  • Truth
  • Epistemology
  • Correctness