Let’s ensure students get the best value from assessment

If you follow the public higher education debate you could be forgiven for thinking that assessment is undertaken solely for the purpose of checking whether students have reached a standard appropriate to being allowed to call themselves graduates – and helping employers divide those graduates’ CVs into two clearly-delineated piles.

The public debate tends to assume the existence of a set of clear and objective criteria against which student performance can be assessed in the same way. The absence of any such transparently interpretable criteria can prompt moral panic about the comparability of standards across degrees and providers, but arguably it is the assumption itself that is problematic. One of the aims of the current degree standards project convened by Advance HE is to foster discussion among external examiners to generate a shared sense of the meaning of criteria within subject areas, as part of efforts to professionalise the role. Such efforts would be unnecessary if criteria were objective and understood by every academic in the same way.

This emphasis on the summative element of assessment, in which students measure themselves and their learning solely against an external yardstick, ignores decades of research on the ways that assessment can facilitate and enable students’ learning. Among assessment experts, the difference is explained as assessment for learning, as opposed to assessment of learning. If assessment is weighted too heavily towards the latter, there is a risk that students never gain a sense of ownership and agency over their own intellectual capital. The pressures this view can create, and the lack of internalisation of the value of assessment for improving learning, may explain why essay mill companies believe that the modern university campus will provide fertile ground for their services.

Yet in life, and the workplace, we are rarely judged in a one-dimensional way. Evaluation of performance is a negotiation between multiple, sometimes competing, criteria and subjective perceptions. Having a clear sense of how to navigate this territory is therefore a critical part of how student learning is assessed.

Living in a critical world

Sally Brown, former pro-vice chancellor and expert consultant in assessment points out that assessment “is the prime locus of interaction between the student and the university.” The curriculum is structured around points of assessment, and opportunities for feedback on assessment. Therefore careful consideration of what is being assessed, and how, is a vital element of designing and structuring a programme of learning.

Persuasive theories of assessment emphasise that assessment is never an end-point – even when the assessment is summative, marking a point of transition between one learning context and another, it should give the student useful experience or information on which they can build future development and growth. Authentic assessment – the effort to test students on intellectual efforts that are understood as worthwhile and meaningful – incorporates this principle. Essays have their role but as Sally Brown points out, so do capstone projects, mini-vivas, e-portfolios and group projects, each of which give students the opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge they have gained in different ways, and develop different skills.

James Hare, academic officer at York University Students’ Union freely admits to a personal preference for essays and says, “I’m never happier than with my head in a book” but acknowledges that different students require different opportunities to build and demonstrate their strengths. He references his experience of study abroad in Poland, where exercises such as group oral examinations and assessment that brought in students’ personal experiences and perspectives opened his eyes to a wider range of possibilities. He believes that while new forms of assessment can be “scary” for students used to a certain way of doing things, and that anonymous assessment can be important for students’ peace of mind, it’s important that assessment “helps students develop as a well-rounded person.”

Assessment for learning, with its emphasis on assessment as a formative process incorporating feedback on performance and the application of feedback to a future assignment, assumes a continuous cycle of assessment throughout the learning journey, rather than a single end-point. The social constructivist view of assessment posits that assessment criteria and purposes are created within subject communities, and are as such continuously evolving.

An associated approach – assessment literacy – seeks to generate discussion with students ahead of assessments about the purpose of each assessment and the criteria to apply, in some cases negotiating criteria with assessors in advance. Measures to diversify the forms of assessment used and give students a degree of choice over how they are assessed similarly recognises that students come to assessment with different experiences, different understandings, and even different aims for what they hope to gain from the process. Margaret Price, professor emerita at Oxford Brookes University and contributor to the Advance HE project on degree standards explains that the goal is to develop a shared understanding of quality with students, ultimately developing students’ ability to self-assess, peer-assess and take ownership of assessment.

All of this is understood among leaders and scholars of learning and teaching. But with pressures on universities to demonstrate student performance and progression increasing, there is a risk that course teams fall back on the tried and tested ways of assessing students, wary of disrupting the established formula. Margaret Price argues that following the introduction of the National Student Survey, many universities introduced simplified universally applicable rules such as standardised feedback turnaround times, that leave no room for judgement about whether the aims of the assessment in question would be met by turning around feedback in that fixed window, or whether students’ learning would benefit.

Moreover, in institutions that have grown their student numbers, and in the context of significant academic workloads across the sector, anything that requires an upfront investment of time to change things, or that could create additional burden of marking (whether real or imagined) feels too challenging to attempt even where the benefits are clear and visible to academic staff. The current row about grade inflation also promotes the application of universal policies in order to demonstrate firm action. As Sally Brown says “champions of assessment reform can have a hard time changing managerial mindsets.”

Beyond the curriculum

The trouble is, as the world becomes ever-more complex, students following established and unvaried rules and processes doesn’t adequately prepare them for their future lives. Tristram Hooley, chief research officer at the Institute of Student Employers, points to a recent piece of work exploring employer views of graduates. The employers that responded were complimentary about graduates’ mastery of what might be characterised as the conventional graduate-level skills: graduates were able to problem-solve, work in teams, give presentations and work with a range of IT. Where there was potential room for improvement was in the demonstration of the more nebulous range of skills and capabilities related to personal and workplace efficacy: managing conflict, career management, managing up and the ever-subjective “leadership”.

It is striking how important these qualities are for an individual’s ability to take control of one’s life, and make choices and build relationships that reflect one’s own sense of direction and aspirations. Is it too much of a reach to suggest that academic assessment, and the processing and application of feedback on assessment, should help students to build this sense of personal agency and self-knowledge, in collaboration with their subject community? While the workplace itself, through the medium of placements and internships, is a useful forum to develop (and assess) these qualities, and many disciplines are already heavily geared towards professional practice, the acquisition of the knowledge and mental models that support higher-order thinking and therefore enable students to exercise judgement in the professional sphere speaks to the essence of “graduate-ness”.

Where do we go from here?

It’s always tempting to turn to “innovation” as the answer, but change for the sake of it does not serve students or educators well, and introducing a one-off novel approach in a well-established programme is unlikely to make a significant difference. It will be more effective to turn to programme and assessment design and ask – and ask students to comment on – whether the assessments provide students with a logical justification for their learning experiences, whether and how assessments generate rich data to base improvement for the future and what helps students feel a sense of ownership over their assessments.

Moving away from criterion-referenced assessment and towards comparative judgements, and discussing those comparative judgements with students, helps to make visible the thought processes involved in arriving at an academic judgement. Asking students to undertake different kinds of tasks – such as those using rich media, involving group work, or “live” data analysis, for example – obliges educators to think carefully about the basis for their judgement, which will generate richer feedback for students.

There is also enormous potential to make better use of the data that is generated by student interactions in the digital sphere, whether discussion of an assignment, sharing of ideas, or engagement with particular resources in advance of submission. Observing students’ online behaviour in shared digital learning spaces, and triangulating that data with students’ commentary on their experience, enables educators to develop a rich picture of how students are engaging with assessment and the assumption or expectations that are driving that behaviour. Though we’ve known what good practice in assessment looks like for decades, there is still a lot we can discover about how formative assessment and feedback generates learning.

This article is published as part of a Conversations on Learning series, in association with Aula

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