Assessment can have a big impact on graduate employability

Jade Underwood argues that universities should embrace assessment design that is adaptive both to a changing student body and changing job markets

Jade Underwood is Learning Experience Officer at the University of Portsmouth Students Union

This might come as a surprise to policymakers, but not all students crave a high-flying graduate job.

However, the majority of students do go to university to improve their chances of securing employment after graduation – which is as important to them as it is to the Office for Students. That’s why students say that the more industry exposure they gain during their time at university, the better.

Employers can play all sorts of roles in higher education – from the odd extra curricular reception to involvement in curriculum and even assessment – and as that involvement deepens, there’s usually resistance on that basis that it could disturb the “integrity” of our degrees. Nevertheless, as Learning Experience Officer for the University of Portsmouth SU, I have found pockets within the university that embrace a move toward more “cohesive assessment design”, a concept that is widely backed by the student body.

It’s therefore exciting to see that my university is a part of The Creative Students Creating Business (CSCB) Project, funded by OfS and UK Research and Innovation, investigating the ways students engage in knowledge exchange as part of their studies. Knowledge exchange can take many forms – such as working 1:1 in a small team, working with an external client, or entering work into a competition. It can be an invaluable part of the learning experience at university, boost real-world experience and support employability.

As a result, I intend on supporting this project by ensuring that we obtain students feedback on their experiences of studying a module that allowed them to work directly with an external company or organisation as part of their studies. This data will prove an important tool in lobbying the university to embed employment focussed modules across all courses. Particularly, this may be beneficial for humanities based courses where the inclusion of these types of modules would better enable them to graduate being confident in skills that directly relate to their chosen career path.

Making these kinds of modules work well hasn’t just meant involving students in discussions with academics. It’s clear that employer involvement in assessment design is the next logical step, given that they are equipped with the most up to date knowledge on the information and skills a student needs to compete with the hundreds of thousands of students graduating with the same degree, for the same job.

Notably, research indicates that these modules are especially beneficial for some distinct student communities including disabled students, student carers, or students that work alongside their studies who may find extra curricular opportunities less accessible. That being the case, to truly start working towards improving equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education, universities must ensure that opportunities for skill development are better embedded into the curriculum.

Degree design

However, even if universities attempt to embed opportunities into the curriculum, how do they attract students to complete a module that involves more than writing an essay? Students’ attitudes towards their time at university has an impact on their choices, and these attitudes are arguably affected by the way universities classify their degrees. For example, at the University of Portsmouth, grades received at Level 4 do not contribute to final degree outcomes which can have both positive and negative effects.

Some academics would argue that this allows students to find their feet in a new environment, thus allowing for the inevitable mistakes that students will make due to being unfamiliar with university standards and expectations. Potentially, this is why many HE providers ensure students’ first year is as easy as possible, which may be attributed to the subtle pressure on universities to ensure that their continuation metrics remain high both for OfS’ B3 regime, and the Teaching Excellence Framework.

However, when universities remove the consequence of achieving a poor final degree outcome due to poor performance at level 4, this arguably runs the risk of some level 4 students attaining a false picture of what is required to succeed in their academic studies. Subsequently, this could be seen to create an unrealistic or passive attitude towards studies that can be hard to break once students reach their second year.

If the signal we send is that students only need to begin to take their studies “seriously” at L5, doesn’t this reduce the likelihood of students having sought out extra-curricular initiatives that improve their career prospects early on? And if that happens, does this not also limit their chances in successfully applying to a work placement year?

As a result, HE providers must recognise that degree classifications, particularly classifications that prevent L4 from affecting final degree outcomes, has the potential to detrimentally affect students. This is because, for some students, it means that their initial time at university is set up in a way where engaging with their degree is not appropriate for the expectations they will face in L5 – which then can become even more detrimental to their future success as learned behaviours and levels of engagement persist. It is therefore essential that HE providers talk to students, consider this effect, and come up with solutions if they are to structure degrees in this way.

Assessment design

Another thing detrimentally affecting final degree outcomes that many students would argue can’t be disputed is “Group Projects”. This type of assessment is sold to students as helping them to learn skills useful for the workplace – teamwork, project planning, negotiation and so on – but in my experience, students express very negative attitudes towards this.

For instance, there can be a serious problem when a student within that group chooses to either contribute the bare minimum or nothing at all, often leading to other students within the group compensating for this by taking on an extra workload. Consequently, the extra workload will either hinder the effort a student can dedicate to other assessments, or place extra pressure on the student to perform their best in all assessments thus negatively affecting their mental wellbeing.

The danger is that those who carry the weight swear off ever working with others again, and those who coast end up wholly unprepared for the workplace. In any event, for both types of students, the process is demonstrably unfair.

It’s why, for example, some students argue that group assessments should only be assigned where it wouldn’t have the potential to negatively impact their final degree outcomes – this way they are able to gain all the transferable skills a group project provides, whilst maintaining their greatest academic potential.

Others say that there should be ways for group assignments to be assessed in a way that assesses both individual and group contribution. All argue that universities should not expect and assess teamwork, project planning, negotiation without teaching it.

What these two examples remind us is that to realise the academic potential for all types of students, now is a good time for higher education providers to acknowledge the dangers of maintaining an outdated “integrity” to assessments. Instead, universities should embrace the idea that assessment design should be adaptive to a changing student body, and changing job markets.

Of course, talking to students about their learning and their lives, and engaging with employers about their skills needs, are both important – but even better is when we bring them together to pilot and roll out new and innovative assessment design that both upholds and reinvents the idea of “standards”, and sets them up for a successful life – whichever path they choose.

3 responses to “Assessment can have a big impact on graduate employability

  1. It’s good to have a student perspective on these issues. Over my 35 years in the academy, I have seen a more formative first year and team projects work well, and less well. So, in this space I suggest a realist evaluation approach to understand these issues: What works? For whom? In what circumstances? and, What are the barriers/impediments to success? There’s fairly robust empirical evidence on the latter, though not on the formative year 1, that answers many of these questions, with good toolkits, guidance and helpful tips to maximise learning, learning gains, and academic outcomes.

  2. Great article. With regards to “All argue that universities should not expect and assess teamwork, project planning, negotiation without teaching it.” I’d actually make the same argument about all assessments. No university should be assessing students without teaching them what is expected of them. It’s important to question why on many modules essays and other forms of academic writing are still a main form of assessment, when many will not become academics. Without being explicitly taught how to do it, this disadvantages many – formative feedback is not enough. Nowhere in the QAA FHEQs does it state that academic writing must be an outcome – there are other ways to assess critical thinking and research. Of course, a move towards authentic assessment may reduce this. I’d also argue that, as there are national/European standards for each level, assessment criteria must be the same for each assessment, regardless of its method. This would better ensure students are meeting needs of the programme (and standardise marking – no more docking marks due to pedantry over referencing) and allow for a better understanding of where students have weaknesses (and need further support). It’s no longer acceptable for unqualified teachers to design assessments and their own criteria to go with it, nor I’d argue is it really acceptable for the sector to continue educating students using researchers who don’t have initial teaching qualifications and learn on the job. It may appear strong to say that, but we all know deep down that it is wrong and is a disservice to students. With high fees and focus on value, it’s time this was addressed.

  3. Having come from a design education background progressively developed teamwork didn’t really involve being taught, more introduced and mentored. Teamwork included individual contribution audits and carefully managed hiring and firing. I can’t thank my lecturers enough as we learned before we were graded, and by the time we organised exhibitions and answered real ‘live briefs’ for clients we certainly understood the power of teamwork.

    Academic writing was minimal and what was really interesting was to see who excelled at what, as it wasn’t often the same people. Constructive alignment is so important.

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