Well, what do you know?

As the academy looks beyond the traditional roles played in assessment by essays and timed exams, new techniques are helping to turn students into active partners in their own learning. Rebecca Attwood reports

January 29, 2009

Will it be a wiki or a blog? A podcast or a portfolio? What about a role play or peer assessment? Where once an essay would suffice, today there are a plethora of possibilities when it comes to testing university students' knowledge and abilities.

Some educationists speak of a sea change having taken place in higher education assessment over the past ten to 15 years, while others think the pace has been frustratingly slow. But it seems that in some university departments at least, traditional exams and essays are beginning to lose something of their once all-powerful hold.

To provide snapshots of current practice, Times Higher Education asked universities to send in examples of their innovative assessment methods, ranging from students submitting "digital stories" to students setting their own marking criteria (see box, page 36).

But is this wondrous or alarming? For some, these "newfangled" methods set alarm bells ringing, particularly where marks count towards a student's degree. Many of the issues surrounding assessment are highly contentious, provoking debate about standards and fairness. However, there seems to be little doubt that assessment matters.

"Assessing students is the most important thing we ever do to them," says Phil Race, visiting professor in assessment, learning and teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University.

"Our assessment can affect their whole lives, their degree classification and the sort of job they get, so we should be naturally concerned and careful to get it right."

Graham Gibbs, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes University, says assessment is teachers' main lever "to change the way students study and get them to put effort into the right things".

Ever since the National Student Survey was launched in 2005, students have consistently given the lowest scores to the assessment and feedback they receive. The National Union of Students says this means there is some way to go before the sector does indeed "get it right".

This week the NUS will launch a document setting out ten principles that it wants to see universities adopt (see box, page 34). It will be sent to students' unions all over the country, which will be encouraged to sit down with university heads of teaching and learning to identify areas for improvement.

Aaron Porter, NUS vice-president (higher education), says: "Students are sending a clear message to us that assessment practices in higher education are often out of date.

"Looking at the NSS results over the past few years, there has been only a 3 per cent increase in satisfaction in this area. While we welcome the small rise, it is not nearly good enough. I don't think there is any excuse not to tackle this head-on if there is such a clear level of dissatisfaction."

Assessment is often described as having two purposes: one lies in measuring someone's performance to communicate it to the outside world; the other in helping the student to learn. The NUS, and many academics who study assessment, argue that there is currently too much emphasis on the former at the expense of the latter.

Assessment should be "for" learning, not simply "of" learning, the NUS assessment briefing says. It calls for more formative assessment - methods that do not necessarily count towards end-of-course or module grades - and feedback to aid the learning process. There should be greater use of peer assessment, in which students assess each other's work, and self-assessment, where they evaluate their own efforts.

Compared with schools and further education colleges, universities have considerable autonomy when it comes to what they assess and how they decide to assess it. Dai Hounsell, professor of higher education and vice-principal at the University of Edinburgh, has been monitoring the extent to which institutions capitalise on this freedom.

Assessment processes are changing fast, he says. It is now rare to find a degree programme in the UK that does not involve a dissertation or project that students carry out in their final year that is "summative" - counting towards a degree classification. But he identifies a "terrible anomaly".

"Almost all universities that I'm familiar with require their students to submit work in word-processed form, if not electronically. Yet many of them still cleave to a system where 'sudden death' handwritten exams are a major element in determining degree classification."

One problem with this is purely physiological. "Computer use means that students are losing the capacity to write quickly for lengthy periods. You just create muscular cramp."

More importantly, the advent of information technology has changed the way people write. "We can write things in almost any order and go back to revise them. Handwritten exam answers involving extended prose and essays are increasingly calling for strategies that students are no longer familiar with.

"That in itself would be problematic, but what we also have to remember is that those strategies aren't required in the world beyond university either. Students are not going to go into jobs where someone is going to say 'I'm sorry, but you have got to submit a handwritten answer in the next 30 minutes.' It is a sort of white elephant and in many ways I think there is a lack of readiness to confront that.

"Our universities - and, I guess, especially Oxford and Cambridge - cannot simply pretend that the problem isn't there. I think students will increasingly argue that it is quite unfair and unreasonable to expect them to go on in this way."

One common theory is that student dissatisfaction with assessment has coincided with the sector's expansion.

Race says: "We can't continue to do with 200 students now what used to be done with 20 students ten or 15 years ago. We haven't got the person power in the system to give feedback in the same way and we have to therefore give our students the best we can by altering the way we do things.

"Students or their parents are paying for their education now and they have an expectation of what they are going to get for their money. They don't want assessment to be slipshod or hasty - it needs to be well designed.

"The NSS has been enormously helpful in telling the sector that assessment and feedback are the areas that students are still least satisfied about. As someone who runs workshops on assessment and feedback, my entry into a group of staff has often been because of NSS figures," Race adds.

Those who are pushing for reconsideration of assessment methods often argue that there are limitations to what the traditional exam can measure. In the 21st century, they say, universities should be assessing a wider range of skills.

"In some subjects, unseen written exams are still measuring what candidates can recall at the time - an echo of what they have learnt, been taught and read, limited by the speed at which they can put words down on a piece of paper," Race says.

Cordelia Bryan, a freelance higher education consultant and co-editor of Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (2006), believes there is a place for traditional methods but questions whether they capture "the richness and diversity" of learning.

"There are so many other ways of using assessment that can enhance the learning experience," she says.

For Sally Brown, provost and pro vice-chancellor at Leeds Metropolitan University, assessment is a "passion", and she thinks traditional essays are "fantastic" - up to a point. "They allow you to construct a logical argument and to use effective referencing. But I looked at an English literature programme where students had to write 174 essays in three years. You'd think they probably could have got the hang of it after the first 100. But if you want them to look at a whole series of sources - to read five journal articles, two books and 23 websites - why not, for once, ask them to produce an annotated bibliography?"

She strongly emphasises, however, that change must not happen for change's sake.

"I would never want anybody to try a new assessment method because it is 'trendy' or because I'd said so. I'd want them to ask rationally, 'Is that going to help the student and is it going to help me?' You want to do it only if there is real benefit."

Some educationists call for assessment methods to be more "authentic", or more like real life.

Patricia Broadfoot, vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, says the issue is fundamentally about "fitness for purpose".

"If you want people who are going to write wonderful briefing papers for politicians, maybe the preparation of writing lots of essays or exam answers is entirely appropriate.

"On the other hand, if what you are looking for is events management professionals, assessing them by written essays seems to me just daft.

"The more we want higher education to prepare people for work and for life, the more we have to broaden our assessment."

The NUS briefing suggests that traditional exams measure exam technique just as much as, if not more than, the extent to which a subject area has been mastered, particularly if a student has been well schooled in that particular assessment method. This hints at another factor some believe is related to assessment changes: greater student diversity.

Graham Mowl, senior lecturer in the School of Geography at the University of Northumbria, says: "Students going to old universities still tend to be the ones that have done well through traditional forms of assessment. But I don't think they are necessarily more intelligent or able students. I just think that the system of assessment has probably suited their needs better than the others.

"Certainly we've found that by introducing a more innovative range of assessment you allow a greater range of students to excel. Some will still do badly, but you get people who come in with unremarkable A-level grades and really develop through a more 'mixed economy' of assessment," Mowl says.

Broadfoot says students from non-traditional backgrounds can lack confidence and be put off by "fiercer" kinds of assignments, such as the traditional exam. More "engaging" methods of assessment will build students' confidence and ability to perform, she believes.

"To give them the maximum opportunity to perform you want to provide a wide variety of opportunities. Somebody who is not terribly good at writing essays may be very good at presenting a paper or doing a project. The more kinds of assessment you use, the more you get a proper picture of what the student can really do," Broadfoot adds.

Brown argues: "It is not about making it easy for people - it is about letting students use their talents to the full."

Mowl has found reflexive journals one of the most successful forms of assessment introduced in his department.

Final-year students are asked to write in the first person about "geographies of tolerance, pleasure and disgust", exploring theories in the context of their own lives and using the literature to come to a deeper understanding of their own views.

"Suddenly the material becomes much more personal to them and they really take off. The journal becomes like a journey," he says.

But Lin Norton, dean of learning and teaching at Liverpool Hope University, warns there is a danger that the phrase "innovative assessment" can be bandied about without much thought as to what it actually means.

"If by the term we mean authentic assessment that helps students learn better - assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning - then innovative assessment is a good thing because it has a pedagogical rationale and purpose," she says.

"If, however, we mean assessment that is new or different for the sake of being new or different, to impress our colleagues or to conform with institutional or subject expectations that it should involve something other than exams, essays and presentations, it seems to me there is little point.

"Assessment design should be integral to curriculum design and should align with what it is we want our students to be able to achieve by studying the curriculum," Norton says.

However long the list of challenges and constraining factors facing the lecturer who dares to innovate in assessment, the number- one worry when it comes to summative assessment is that standards will be put at risk.

"Both oral assessment and groupwork present a challenge to the way in which we see rigour in assessment," Hounsell explains.

"If you've written an exam script or have done an essay or dissertation, it is available for internal and external examiners to scrutinise."

The same is not always true of more innovative forms of assessment. But Hounsell questions whether a full-blown record is needed for absolutely everything a student does.

"When you look at how many individual units of assessment go into an overall degree result, the influence of any one is quite small."

Hounsell says the reality is that in any kind of group situation there is an element of unevenness to the contributions, but that should not stop it being recognised.

"We've just completed the research assessment exercise, after all. Our present systems are almost overengineered in terms of safeguards. We have so many bits of assessment information on most of our students that trying out new things is not going to put the whole system at risk. If we said that in any course unit or module, 20 per cent of the assessment could be experimental, I don't think the walls of universities would come tumbling down."

Hounsell believes the Quality Assurance Agency's official guidance is "quite progressive", with universities' own assessment regulations the bigger disincentive.

"They are mostly about what you can't do and not what you can do, and they make people feel they are walking through a minefield surrounded by razor wire," he says.

Mowl agrees that quality assurance procedures can stifle innovation.

"There is increased formality around determining assessment strategies for individual modules. To make a change in the way you assess your module can take months," he comments.

A lot can depend on colleagues' attitudes towards innovation in this area. Margaret Price, professor in learning and assessment at Oxford Brookes University, explains: "The disciplinary community and the institutional culture can impact significantly on whether staff are encouraged to innovate, take risks and devote time to developing assessment.

"They may not have the pedagogic literacy to enable sound, effective innovation or they may be required to produce results in a very short timescale when in reality pedagogic innovation takes time to embed and make really effective. So an innovation could be deemed a failure when, with a bit more time, it could be a resounding success."

Bryan agrees that environment matters and that assessment design should not be carried out in isolation. "Good assessment needs to be linked to curriculum design. Ideally this should be a collaborative process where the teaching team thrashes out the priorities."

While it is clear that there are pockets of innovation right across the sector, Hounsell says the most traditional universities still tend to be very conservative in their approaches to assessment.

"I think it is always harder to change an established system that goes back a long way. If formal, sit-down, end-of-degree-programme exams are associated with the longest-established universities, people tend to see that kind of assessment as a 'gold standard' that they want to emulate," he says.

A big barrier is people doing what they have always done because it is easier and because of the weight of tradition, agrees Broadfoot.

"Pen-and-paper tests still attract a degree of trust and esteem that other kinds of assessment don't. In endless universities you hear: 'Last year's exam paper was like this, so can you give us a slightly different one this year?' People who are busy say 'fine' because that is hard enough to do.

"That is combined with the fact that most or many teachers in higher education have little or no training in either the theory or the practice of assessment - a lack of what one might call assessment literacy," she adds.

"On to that you add the fact that traditional forms of assessment such as exams are very easy to administer, mark and use to compare people. In terms of communication they are probably the quickest and easiest mode of assessment you can do. If you are a busy academic you have to be very committed, because things are stacked against you.

"Because assessment matters so much to people in terms of the outcomes, it is very difficult to innovate because that makes you more exposed to challenge. People fall back on the tried and tested because they feel safer. So I think it will be a long while before things change fundamentally, sadly," Broadfoot says.

As one anonymous vice-chancellor puts it: "While I certainly wouldn't rule out further changes of summative assessment methods, I suspect that innovation in the future will be concentrated in formative assessment."

Bryan thinks one reason staff can be sceptical is because many innovations involve students in their own assessment.

"That's scary to some 'traditional' lecturers because it shifts the power balance. But I believe it is really important to 'teach' students how to evaluate their own learning and to identify their own strengths and weaknesses."

Finally, and most importantly, lecturers have to convince students themselves - and there can be initial resistance.

When engineering students at the University of Hertfordshire got wind of the fact that their department planned to introduce peer assessment of their lab reports, there were complaints along the lines of "I pay for you to mark my work" and "I want my work marked by an expert".

"We are keen to continue to run laboratory studies, but it is increasingly difficult as class sizes get larger and larger. We looked at what we understood about what worked in assessment and student engagement and we moved to a peer-assessment approach," says Mark Russell, principal lecturer and deputy director of the university's Blended Learning Unit.

He was convinced the new method would work and invited students to come to class with an open mind, where he made a case for the benefits.

"By the end of the experience, they were overwhelmingly positive. For us it is part of sharing assessment standards. It brings students closer to the marking criteria and it really helps them to improve their own work when they can see how other students have gone about the same task and where they have gone right or wrong."

Leeds Met's Phil Race is also certain that there are great advantages to peer and self-assessment, not least in increasing the effectiveness of feedback.

"I am a great believer in getting students to self-assess and to hand it in with their work, so that when we mark it we know what they think of it and can therefore fine-tune our response," he says.

The way around any anxiety among students, he says, is to make sure they encounter different assessment methods early on. "That way they will realise there are a lot of different ways of measuring learning," he says.

Race thinks peer assessment works best when students work to formulate the criteria themselves, with guidance from their tutor.

"The first two or three times I did this I had in my briefcase what I thought was a good set of criteria we could use if the students didn't come up with a suitable one. But every time, I walked out humbled: they'd come up with something better."

Rethinking assessment may be hard work, but it pays off in the end, says Brown.

"What makes innovating worthwhile is when we get feedback from students saying that assessment has become an integral part of the learning experience, when staff tell us that it was manageable and enjoyable and when the results show that students have achieved their personal best. In Scrabble, that's a triple-word score!"

NATIONAL UNION OF STUDENTS' PRINCIPLES OF EFFECTIVE ASSESSMENT

1. Should be for learning, not simply of learning

This positions assessment at the heart of learning rather than it serving as a simple add-on at the end of the process.

2. Should be reliable, valid, fair and consistent

It is crucial for staff, students and employers to have confidence in the assessment processes and their outcomes.

3. Should consist of effective and constructive feedback

Effective feedback on assessment is a crucial aspect of assessment processes and a key feature of enhancing the learning process.

4. Should be innovative and have the capacity to inspire and motivate

Formative assessment practices have the potential to inspire and motivate, and this aspect can be captured by innovative approaches, including those making use of new technology.

5. Should measure understanding and application, rather than technique and memory

Assessments need to have a holistic approach that transcends the particular method being used; only this will truly test and reflect levels of learning.

6. Should be conducted throughout the course, rather than being positioned as a final event

Positioning assessment as an integral part of the course helps facilitate continuous learning.

7. Should develop key skills such as peer and reflective assessment

Not only do such mechanisms allow students to receive extra feedback on work beyond that of their tutor, they also help develop the key skill of self-reflection.

8. Should be central to staff development and teaching strategies, and frequently reviewed

Assessment processes must be innovative and responsive to learners' needs, and as such they need to be central to staff development and teaching strategies.

9. Should be of a manageable amount for both tutors and students

While assessment should be placed in a central role in learning, for it to be effective neither tutor nor student should be overburdened.

10. Should encourage dialogue between students and their tutors and students and their peers

It is important that students and staff share the same definitions and ideas around standards. This can be fostered by increased dialogue and engagement.

EXAMPLES OF INNOVATIVE ASSESSMENT TECHNIQUES SUBMITTED BY UNIVERSITIES

- Students taking an MA option on conflict simulation at King's College London can study war board games. Rather than writing conventional essays analysing the genre, the students must absorb its principles and design a fully-fledged simulation game of their own.

- At the University of Plymouth, second-year marine biology students must devise and present research proposals to third-year students who assume the role of members of the Natural Environment Research Council. First-year students, in the role of "taxpayers", also have their say as to how the money should be spent.

- Business students at the University of Gloucestershire are given a marketing plan for a company in advance of their exam. In the examination they are presented with a series of changes that have taken place to which they are asked to respond.

- Students of English studying poetry at the University of Northumbria assemble a poetry anthology, working out their target audience and justifying editorial choices.

- Those enrolled on a masters in creative writing at the University of Salford can choose the form in which they submit their work - via CD-Rom, a website, an installation or a performance.

- Students studying mental health at Leeds Metropolitan University collate a scrapbook of reflections arising from recovery stories and work collaboratively online to develop the assessment criteria for the exercise.

- In the module "Web research for historians", students at the University of Leeds learn how to evaluate online sources with a critical eye, before creating their own website on a history topic. Marking criteria take into consideration whether material has been suitably adapted for the web.

- Multimedia students at the University of Gloucestershire upload their graphic work into an interactive virtual gallery. The work is anonymous except to the tutor, who can add online feedback. Students can view all the work and comment in small-group situations.

- Students in the final year of a creative writing degree at Bath Spa University take on a creative enterprise project that tests both their academic and entrepreneurial abilities. In negotiation with tutors, students decide which outcomes will be assessed and how.

- In the University of Cambridge's School of Clinical Medicine, students are tested on their communication skills in a dedicated exam. Trainee doctors are presented with different situations, in which the patients are played by actors, such as having to break bad news to family members and explaining the next stage of treatment to a patient.

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