Leader: Update the time-tested models

Academics and students alike can gain by breaking with old thinking and moving beyond the traditional assessment methods

January 29, 2009

Since the first National Student Survey four years ago, assessment and feedback have consistently received the lowest scores from students. Now the National Union of Students has come up with ten principles of effective assessment that student unions can discuss with heads of teaching and learning to try to improve the situation. Students are to be congratulated on putting their mouths where their money is with this initiative.

No one doubts the importance of assessment, but the NUS says it should be "for" learning, not "of" learning. It wants more formative, rather than summative, methods.

And many academics would agree. Time, however, is not on their side.

Class sizes are much bigger than they were three decades ago, and academics cannot do for 200 students what they were able to do for 20. This makes summative feedback much easier to dole out, but it is certainly not the most helpful to students.

Although summative assessment in itself may be a problem, it also highlights an anomaly that curses not just tertiary-level assessment: the handwritten, sudden-death exam. We test students using an unfamiliar composing strategy and ask them to write intensively for long periods when they use a computer the rest of the time. Tradition has a lot to answer for.

But in their quest for better assessment, students must keep their part of the bargain. Often, students given formative feedback simply note the grade and ignore the feedback. The summative aspect of assessment so dominates student thinking - how grades are cumulated, as in a grade-point average, or an honours degree classification - that the mark becomes the sole end of study. And of course, formative assessment involves pointing out weaknesses as well as strengths, which students do not always welcome.

Despite all the time constraints on teachers, the pressure of student dissatisfaction and a changing cohort of students are combining to force a shift in assessment methods, pushing out traditional exams and essays.

The jury is out on whether some new methods offer more than novelty, but there is no doubt that engaging with students formatively can be stimulating. There are rewards for both academics and students in setting tasks that move beyond the standard pedagogy of transmitting knowledge and then testing students' acquisition of it, although the summative assessment of the outcomes from these tasks will pose a challenge (and care must be taken to maintain standards).

Tara Brabazon, professor of media studies at the University of Brighton, is delighted by the "non-standard" assignments in her marking pile: posters, diaries, three-dimensional models, films, songs, an altar to Google Doodles and a photographic series of shoes. "It took me three train trips to bring these objects home to mark," she says in her online column (www.timeshighereducation.co.uk). "I am (secretly) thrilled. While we maintain a commitment to standards and academic protocols, most of us are intrigued when our students riff off and remix the research literature in ways we cannot imagine."

If students are responding enthusiastically to innovative assessments, their teachers have a duty to keep an open mind. After all, as Phil Race, visiting professor in assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University, says: "Assessing students is the most important thing we ever do to them. We should be careful to get it right."

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