Equity, agency and transparency: making assessment work better for students and academics

Carol Evans explains how to design assessment and feedback practices that are authentic and deepen students’ learning and confidence in the long term

Carol Evans's avatar
Cardiff University,
23 Nov 2021
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Advice on designing and delivering more authentic, equitable and transparent assessment and feedback

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A key question in higher education is how assessment can work better for us, given the vast amount of time, energy, and emotion we all invest in it. From a student perspective, lack of understanding of assessment requirements and concerns about fairness are paramount. For academics, maintenance of standards, academic integrity, the sheer volume of work and lack of recognition for it predominate.

What does good assessment look like?

The principles of effective assessment and feedback are well known to include equity, agency and transparency to support learners to understand for themselves. Authenticity is a key part of this equation, in that assessment tasks need to be representative of the “real-world” challenges the student is being prepared for. Learners need to demonstrate application of knowledge and understanding. Assessment needs to have relevance and benefit to the student beyond the immediate assignment (such as development of future-proof transferable skills), and it should have broader value to society in the form of useful outcomes. Authenticity is also required in how we assess. For instance, in team assessment, the extent to which the team has met the requirements of the brief and used the strengths of team members to best effect is key.

However, successfully implementing all these principles is difficult given varied student needs and disciplinary or professional requirements, set within a specific context, and at a specific time.

We need to look at assessment in an integrated way. Often problems we associate with assessment originate elsewhere. For example, in thinking about why students are not using feedback, we need to consider what the students’ goals were in the first place and how clear they were about what was required of them, along with the quality of feedback and placement of it.

In considering effective and efficient use of assessment, I developed the EAT (Equity; Agency; Transparency) conceptual assessment framework. It takes the form of a web or wheel highlighting the interconnected nature of different aspects of assessment which influence one another. The framework comes from comprehensive, ongoing, systematic review of assessment research carried out over the past 20 years, and its practical application. At its core is inclusivity in promoting student access to, and success in, assessment through actively engaging them in it. Developed with students and staff, it highlights key principles that are at the heart of good assessment and feedback design as summarised below.

Effective assessment and feedback principles

To support assessment literacy among students, we should:

  • Clarify what the assessment is and how it is organised. Explain the principles underpinning the design of assessment so that students can understand the relevance and value of it.
  • Provide explicit guidance to students on the requirements of each assessment. For example, clarification of assessment criteria; desired learning outcomes; good academic practice.
  • Clarify with students the different forms, sources and timings of feedback available including e-learning opportunities.
  • Clarify the role of the student as an active participant in the feedback process (seeking, using and giving feedback to self and peers; developing networks of support), and not just as a passive receiver of feedback.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work with assessment criteria and examples of work at different grade levels to aid understanding of what constitutes “good”.

To facilitate improvements in learning, we should:

  • Ensure the curriculum design enables sufficient time for students to apply the lessons learned from formative feedback in their summative assessments.
  • Give clear and focused feedback on how students can improve their work including signposting the most important areas to address (what was good; what could be improved; and most importantly, how to improve).
  • Ensure that formative feedback precedes summative assessment; that the links between formative feedback and the requirements of summative assessment are clear.
  • Ensure there are opportunities and support for students to develop self-assessment and self-monitoring skills, and training in peer feedback.
  • Ensure training opportunities on assessment feedback for all those engaged in curriculum delivery to enhance shared understanding of assessment requirements.

To promote integrated assessment design, we should:

  • Ensure that opportunities for formative assessment are integral to curriculum design at module and programme levels.
  • Ensure that all core resources are available to students electronically through the virtual learning environment and other relevant sources from the start of the semester to enable students to take responsibility for organising their own learning.
  • Provide an appropriate range and choice of assessment opportunities throughout a programme of study – focus on assessment forms that best enable individuals to demonstrate competency rather than focusing on individual preferences; assessment should enable progressive development of skills, and not be reliant on single forms of high-stakes assessment.
  • Ensure there are opportunities for students to give feedback on learning and teaching – individually, via student groups, during a taught course and at the end of it – to enable reasonable amendments to be made during the teaching of the course, subject to the discretion of the course convenor.

Using these principles and considering bang for buck, there are some key things we can do that make a difference to student outcomes; in summing up I will describe three of these.  

1) To promote access to assessment we need to simplify it and keep simplifying it

What is the absolute core knowledge and skills a module is testing and how can these be signposted more clearly? It is about keeping the feedback message tight, so the core intention is not lost in translation. It is about providing direct links to high-quality resources, so students are spending their time on what is most valuable.

2) We need to focus on co-creation if we are to enhance student and staff understanding

Rubrics “given” to students have much less purchasing power than those developed with them. Shifting the nature of assessment to that focused on production of useful products requires greater investment and ownership from students.

While nothing is wrong with the dissertation per se, there are many high-powered and alternative ways in which students can demonstrate their understanding that have more carry-forward value, such as journal articles; focused reports on implementing lessons from research; creative solutions to specific community concerns and more.

Assessment needs to challenge students to step up. Engaging students in co-marking and moderation processes aids their understanding of processes and perceptions of fairness – for many moderation is a black hole. Embedding opportunities for students to engage in evaluation throughout their programme of study increases their ability to judge the quality of work for themselves.

3) Promoting student and staff co-creation requires confidence on both sides, and training to support this

It means making the expectations of students explicit at point of entry about how they should be contributing and making the limits of support clear. It’s about developing shared goals and making the rationale underpinning what we’re doing explicit. It requires evaluation to be integral to each teaching session, where students are actively engaged in identifying gaps in their own and their peers’ knowledge and understanding, and in contributing solutions as part of an ongoing dialogue.

Streamlining programmes to focus on the core knowledge and skills we most value, and will value in the future, is essential if we are to create learning environments that we want to be part of. So, rather than asking what we should be adding, we need to think hard about what has to go, something the EAT framework guides you to consider.

Carol Evans is an honorary visiting professor at Cardiff University, and visiting professorial fellow at the University of Southampton.


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