The case for authentic assessment in HE’s ‘new normal’

Traditional forms of assessment, such as exams and essays, are largely irrelevant once students arrive in the workplace – we need new methods that relate to jobs, now more than ever

October 2, 2020
Assessment exams
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My interest in assessment dates from my school and university days. After I struggled first with speech and then with writing, it’s quite a surprise that I made it to university at all, let alone subsequently forged a career in academia.

Despite pretty dismal A-level grades, I secured a university place via clearing to study physiology. By the end of the first year, I realised that I was getting much better marks than my peers with impressive A levels – a trend that continued throughout my degree.

My awareness of this discrepancy engendered a certain cynicism about exams, and I began questioning a system that places students in the rather stressful situation of answering questions and writing essays under a time limit. Surely this was not an effective way to demonstrate future potential, despite being the basis of the Ucas points-based system?

My views were reinforced when one of my daughters failed to achieve the requirements of her offer to study dentistry but was rung on results day by her first-choice university confirming her place. This was on the basis of her interview, to which she had taken things she had made, thereby demonstrating her manual dexterity – obviously impossible to see from A-level results. 

Over many years of teaching environmental conservation, it has become increasingly apparent to me that, given the fee increases, many students are investing in a future well-paid job rather than going to university out of thirst for knowledge alone. This is going to be doubly true in the jobs market most current students will be facing.

I feel strongly that our role as teachers is to facilitate their goal − while simultaneously maintaining academic standards. Fine words are spoken about access and providing support for those with additional needs, but the standard assessment practice remains essays and exams, particularly for undergraduates. Are these ever experienced in the workplace? Is the ability to learn and retain information and then regurgitate it under exam conditions a crucial skill required (and desired) by employers? 

My area is applied ecology and landscape management, and I’ve worked closely with industry and the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) to find out what employers expect from graduate entrants and used this to inform programme content. 

To this end, I was involved in the development of a “competency framework” − the prerequisite to degree accreditation − and piloted this on the MSc I was leading. More recently, I carried out research, with CIEEM, into the sector’s skills gap and then worked with a diverse group of employers to develop the level 7 ecologist degree apprenticeship, approved in June last year. 

This has provided clear evidence that employers do not appoint graduates on the basis of a “good” degree alone (that is simply expected) but require graduate applicants to be able to demonstrate competency, defined as a combination of knowledge, skills and behaviours. 

Since taking on programme leadership, I have removed all exams and essays, replacing them with more “authentic” means of assessment. These are based on tasks likely to be experienced in job roles and designed to evidence competencies as well as meeting the academic standard. 

A particularly useful assignment has been the reflective portfolio, providing students with the opportunity to take responsibility for their learning by describing what they have done − from attending outside events to doing fieldwork and reading − and reflecting on how this has moved their learning forward. This helps evidence skill development, in a similar way to the continuing professional development (CPD) record required in many professions, and has been identified as good practice by external examiners.

Other examples of our authentic assessments are reviewing documents, identifying shortcoming in reports, writing method statements and preparing advice for clients in response to scenarios. Where possible, practitioners are invited to present work they have done, which can then be used as the basis for an assessed task.

Every reference request asks questions about behaviour, and this is something that tends to be forgotten in our teaching. Also, students do not readily identify the transferable aspects of their learning unless it is made explicit to them. For example, I struggle to get students to see that shop work or waitressing can be highly important in demonstrating competency – reliability, handling clients, etc − rather than an afterthought on their CV.

One thing to bear in mind, for those considering authentic assessment, is that even though my approach and commitment to authentic assessment strategies is clear and popular with students, the reaction from colleagues is rather mixed.

Some are happy, but others, particularly those with no industry experience – the career academics – see no reason to move away from exams (despite the increasing difficulty of marking, with handwriting seeming more illegible given the prevalence of IT).

I have found it particularly challenging (and have failed) to influence the teaching of computer applications – such as GIS – to reflect changes in the industry. The defence is that IT skills are transferable, which, while true, disadvantages students in the job market if they are lacking experience of current techniques. To be competitive and attract students it is vital that we, as teachers, are up to date and maintain close links with industry.   

There is an old saying along the lines of “if you want a better answer, ask a better question”. Those of us in teaching should reflect on this and look for more effective ways to help students demonstrate both academic achievements and their competency to employers.

Professor Debbie Bartlett is principal lecturer in environmental conservation at the University of Greenwich’s Faculty of Engineering and Science. She is also a chartered landscape architect and fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).   

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