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Building back learning and teaching means changing assessment

How students are assessed is among the most totemic issues in pedagogy. Debbie McVitty finds out what it takes to make assessment change happen
This article is more than 2 years old

Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

Change is in the air for learning and teaching. The post-pandemic grand return to campus for the new year has been marked by local scuffles over retaining some online-only elements in the teaching and learning offer to students while the pandemic continues to pose a risk, but behind the scenes universities are working through the ramifications of a more lasting shift in the learning landscape.

The pandemic made the traditional in-person timed exam impossible, and meant universities were forced to explore alternatives. Some stuck with the tried and tested formula, reproducing proctored exams in an online environment, but others leapt at the chance to widen their assessment horizons.

Those inside universities tasked with managing these changes had a rich array of pedagogical insight to draw from, from expert practitioners such as Sally Brown and Kay Sambell, who swung into action during the pandemic to compile and share resources in an online repository they dubbed the Covid Assessment Collection.

As a result, an opportunity arose for more lasting change, in the words of Brown and Sambell’s essay in a collection on assessment and feedback in a post-pandemic era published by Advance HE, to “reimagine assessment for good.” Their vision of “future-focused” assessment and feedback calls for assessment to “promote, support, and extend future learning” through designing authentic assessments that develop students’ personal agency and judgement, rather than simply measuring what has already been learned.

Assessment and change

Assessment is, arguably, the central cog which sets the rest of the academic curriculum in motion. In theory, how students are assessed communicates how the university imagines learning. It should be possible to read a university’s pedagogic values and aspirations for its students by looking at its assessment practice.

Good assessment design is hard, and even harder if you want to give students plenty of choice and experience of different forms of assessment – such as producing podcasts, documentary videos, or critical reviews – as well as the traditional essays and exams.

But it is also worth it – diversifying assessment in this way can be part of a more inclusive approach to pedagogy, offering a range of avenues for engagement, and creating space for students to show what they know in different ways. Diversity of assessment also offers students more opportunities to practice a wider range of skills, and develop their use of tools and technologies that will be useful to them in their future careers.

“Assessment is the hardest thing to change yet it’s the thing that’s shaping the students’ experience more than anything,” says Jan McArthur, senior lecturer at Lancaster University. “In research it’s really bad form to be methods-driven – but that’s what we do in assessment. We work backwards from essays or exams and then work in the knowledge we want students to have. We subscribe to all this stuff about promoting graduate attributes of being good citizens and critical thinkers and then we push them into the straitjacket of assessment systems that are so often rigid.”

Assessment can be hard to change. That’s partly because assessment is enormously culturally totemic within and outside the academy. It is (rightly, up to a point) hedged about with rules and processes designed to protect standards, which makes it a tough nut to crack. It is high stakes for both staff and students, so sticking to traditional methods is almost always lower risk than innovating.

Yet “change capacity” really is needed – the continuous updating of the curriculum and evolution of learning and teaching is a central tenet of UK higher education quality for a good reason. The perhaps rather cliched version of this argument cites changes in the world “outside” higher education and universities’ responsibility to “keep up”. But it might just as easily be expressed as universities’ teaching and curriculum being in active dialogue with a changing world, one in which students, industries, the professions, and knowledge itself are in a constant state of renewal.

In this current moment, it’s recognised that the pandemic accelerated planned changes – especially in the adopting of technology to support learning and teaching – and exposed fault lines in established practice that need to be addressed and understood with an evidence base. Nowhere is this more visible than in the contemporary debate over assessment.

“It is still an open question as to what changes we want to keep post-pandemic,” says Patrick Baughan, senior learning advisor at Advance HE. “As the pandemic hopefully clears or recedes we need to extrapolate what works, what helps students learn, what needs to be retained – and what hasn’t worked so well. Going forward we need to establish a minimum expectation that we afford students some diversity of assessment options – flexibility must be retained. As well as this we should think about staff welfare and the impact of the pandemic on staff workloads.”

Working with Adobe, we wanted to explore not only how universities are reimagining student assessment in light of the pandemic, but the strategies they are adopting to embed that change across their whole institution, in hopes of shedding light on how change actually happens in different universities – and giving hope to those who may on occasion feel that change is simply too hard.

In the autumn of 2021 Wonkhe and Adobe spoke with seven leaders of learning and teaching from different kinds of universities, and held a round table for 13 senior leaders exploring the twin themes of assessment and change – especially the barriers and enablers for changing assessment. You can view and download our findings here.

Barriers and enablers

Through our discussions we identified a mix of challenges: some structural; others cultural. At a purely structural level, legacy academic infrastructure including assessment policies, division of course elements into separate modules, and arrangements for quality assurance can throw up issues.

A consistent theme was the value of taking a programme-level view of assessment, creating opportunities for students to experience different forms of formative and summative assessment at different points in their student journey, as well as addressing issues of assessment load and pinch points where assessments cluster that can create unnecessary stress and pressure. Achieving this requires investment in programme leaders and course teams, and encouraging teamwork across different course elements, as well as offering support for developing assessment literacy among individual staff.

“It’s not as simple as writing a policy just focusing on volume or type of assessment,” says Karen Barton, director of learning and teaching at the University of Hertfordshire, which is part of a consortium of University Alliance institutions exploring the impact of changes to assessment during the pandemic as part of a project funded by QAA. “It’s more about taking a broader view and looking at the outcomes we’re trying to assess – do we need to assess absolutely every tiny little bit of minutiae at modular level, or can we design a more cohesive approach that evidences many outcomes even across modules?”

Beginning to unpack some of the historical structural inconveniences baked into assessment regulations – an overly minute focus on required “word count” came up more than once – also throws up cultural and disciplinary tensions. Interviewees acknowledged that academic professional cultures may not encourage pedagogic innovation, with recognition and reward structures in research-intensive institutions particularly skewed towards research outputs.

Tackling some of these issues can lead to reassessing some of the most fundamental assumptions that are structuring assessment practice – such as the necessity of grading every single assessment. Vikki Hill is an educational developer at University of the Arts London where she works on belonging and compassionate pedagogy, and where the academic enhancement team is working to address inequity in arts education, including in assessment. During the pandemic as part of its “no detriment” assessment policy the university adopted pass/fail assessment for all year one undergraduates, which, Vikki explains, has prompted a conversation challenging unexamined practice around assessment.

“Our hope is to change assessment to reduce harm to students,” says Vikki. “We’re looking at grading: what it is, and what it does, and asking staff and students to question that. In the fishbowl it’s hard to see outside, but the idea of grading creates competitive environments that are not real or replicable in terms of students going out into the world or industry. The symbolic power of grades is incredibly powerful but incredibly problematic as well – we need to ask how these beliefs about the necessity of grades affect our learning and teaching and our policy.”

It is also clear that accommodating disciplinary differences can be a source of innovation and rich conversations within institutions. “We fully accept that high pedagogic quality lies at discipline level, and we support that – but getting greater diversity of assessment is what we ask departments to do,” says Gwen van der Velden, deputy pro vice chancellor (education) at the University of Warwick, where the university is implementing an end to end online assessment system that will mean, in the long term, a significant reduction in in-person exams.

“Every department is asking me what we want blended learning to look like,” says Gwen. “But as a sector we’re in a very messy, transitional space. So I will always respond that it is your discipline pedagogy and experience that matters, and what is authentic teaching for you.”

On a personal level, taking forward these kinds of conversations can be effortful, especially given the toll the pandemic has taken on students and staff. But the pandemic also brought people together, and created space for innovation in the context of mutual support – and that’s something that can really shift established cultures of working.

“In my role as director of teaching in my department, I’m trying to encourage the sharing of stories,” says Jan McArthur. “In academia we’re taught to cover up mistakes and amplify success, but gaining knowledge is all about making mistakes. During Covid we had an informal faculty group that came together initially to deal with the emergency of Covid, but evolved naturally into a collegial discussion about teaching, learning and assessment. People felt safe to share things and to change ideas and challenge one another – and that was one of most transformative experiences I’ve ever been a part of.”

And it’s not only staff that need to be part of the conversation. “Part of what’s come out of the pandemic experience is improved dialogue with students,” says Karen Barton. “When you have to change assessment really quickly you need that dialogue with students about what the assessment is going to be – and you gain more understanding of what students’ difficulties might be, and more understanding from students about what their experience of assessment was, and not just have them turning up for the exam and hoping for the best and then it’s over.”

Making change happen

So on a purely practical level, what kinds of strategies can support institution-wide change? Teesside University and Solent University – both members of the international Adobe Creative Campus community of practice – are each working to reimagine assessment as part of an institution-wide roll out of a new curriculum framework.

“Typically assessment innovation is done at local level, and is not amenable to wide scale change,” says Sam Elkington, principal lecturer in learning and teaching excellence at Teesside University, where he leads implementation of the assessment and feedback strand of the university’s “future facing learning” strategy.

“I’ve seen too many change projects where it’s an ‘in-theory’ piece – wanting to do something without understanding the complexity of what they want to do, or having the willingness to carry out the specific changes in practice. The reality is that changing assessment means changing everything else – staff workloads, quality assurance – it’s a slow process to make that a normative thing.”

Sam describes Teesside’s strategy as being about “humanising the curriculum” – creating closer alignment between curriculum and future employability, but also in terms of making the curriculum more meaningful for learners’ interests and concerns.

Achieving this means moving beyond the traditional three to five year course review and working towards a continuously refreshed and updated curriculum. Digital literacy is a core element of the strategy, and students and staff are supported with devices, software, and training to weave digital elements across the curriculum.

Sam’s approach to change is to convene workshops that support programme-wide dialogue on curriculum, examining the evidence, exchanging perspectives, developing assessment literacy, and supporting teams to find common ground. He is keen to build interdisciplinary “coalitions of change” to accumulate collective knowledge about how to change both assessment and the cultures that hinder change. And while he is open to addressing policy or structural barriers that staff view as constraints, he is also willing to challenge false or exaggerated perceptions of powerlessness that arise from regulatory conditions.

“We bring together course, or programme teams, or multiple teams within a department to develop a sense of what matters most, and a shared vision for assessment,” explains Sam. “It’s not easy – and there’s plenty of conflict. To some extent my job is conflict management, and you need to be comfortable with that and not come into the conversation with an established view. But it pays off, because actively involving staff at the point of design enables us to map that route to practice for them. This makes it sustainable – it builds confidence that colleagues are on the same page, and that the work is grounded in a common point of reference.”

At Solent University, head of learning and teaching Karen Heard-Laureote is applying the university’s “real world curriculum” framework to assessment. Karen is working on developing the idea of a “living CV”, helping students and staff translate formal learning outcomes into “CV language”.

But the exercise is not only designed as a translation piece – it is intended to prompt change in learning and assessment by shifting the curriculum lens to the application of the knowledge and skills that students have gained. “Authenticity is so important – students have to be doing something meaningful,” says Karen. “From learning outcomes to teaching delivery to assessment we want it all to be far more relevant and based on something they need again.”

Karen is working with course leaders with targeted events and activities designed to develop leadership confidence, build the case for change – and make assessment more varied and interesting.

“We’re looking at where we can interpret assessment as widely as possible so we can be as agile as possible. I’m very keen on promoting the idea of portfolios – they are very flexible, they contain lots of elements, and there’s potential for choice, for example by using words like “a portfolio may include”. We encourage staff to be less precise in language when writing assessments so they can move every year.”

There is also a strong focus on student transition, to prepare students for different kinds of assessment, and reassure them that this is what employers want. This includes extended induction and low-stakes early assessment. Students are also involved in building digital capacity as “digi buddies”, helping staff deliver hybrid learning – and both students and staff are working alongside each other to gain microcredentials in digital skills.

Post-pandemic there is a renewed appetite for institution-wide learning and change – and there’s no better moment to embed the good assessment practice that education developers and experts have championed for so long – not only for student development, engagement, and wellbeing, but for staff as well.

“The problem we have with assessment is that there’s absolutely no joy in it – it should be about understanding more about students’ needs, about students celebrating achievement, about getting to apply their knowledge,” says Jan McArthur.

But this very human approach requires resisting the pull of issuing rules and guidance that could provide a crutch through this period of uncertainty, but would ultimately not support sustainable change that was owned by staff and students working in their disciplinary context. Instead the job is to create the spaces that allow new narratives to evolve about what assessment means, and then commit to making those changes stick.

This article is published in association with Adobe. You can download the findings of our interviews with leaders of learning and teaching on assessment and change here. To learn more about how Adobe can support you please click here.

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