Exams cut by 20 per cent in bid to improve assessment

New strategy aims to promote deep learning and provide better feedback, reports Rebecca Attwood

September 25, 2008

Exams and coursework will be cut by 20 per cent at the University of Gloucestershire in a drive to give staff more time to provide better feedback to students and to develop new forms of assessment.

As part of a new assessment strategy, the university will reduce the amount students are assessed by one fifth on most courses from September 2009.

Patricia Broadfoot, the university's vice-chancellor, said she believed too much traditional assessment encouraged students to focus too heavily on marks and to adopt an instrumentalist approach to their studies.

She wanted to encourage staff to experiment with new methods of assessing students that would also promote "deep" learning. Ideas being developed at Gloucestershire include "digital storytelling", where students create mini-movies of sound and image; online assessment; and self-assessment by students and their peers.

"This is a first step towards getting greater quality in assessment," Professor Broadfoot said.

"It is assessment that exercises the most profound influence on students' approach to their work. At Gloucestershire, the pursuit of assessment procedures that empower students, that match desired learning outcomes and that encourage deep learning, is an integral part of our educational philosophy.

"The proposal to reduce assessment by 20 per cent on most courses reflects the recognition that, at present, there is too much emphasis on 'summative assessment' - the end of module mark or grade - and too little on 'formative' assessment or feedback. The National Student Survey results make it clear that universities are still not doing enough in this respect. So we want to free up tutors' time so they can spend more of it giving timely support and guidance to students' learning."

Last October, Professor Broadfoot consulted on plans to abolish all exams for first-year students, but the proposals were put on hold because they did not win sufficient support. She agreed that the latest assessment strategy, drawn up over a year in consultation with staff and students, could be seen as a compromise.

Professor Broadfoot said: "The traditional examination is a very limited tool when you consider the rich variety of educational goals and activities that different courses are now pursuing.

"The new assessment strategy asks colleagues to think in detail about what assessment tools best fit the learning outcomes for students. This is already leading to the use of a much wider range of assessment practices - anything from role-play and presentations to projects and a variety of digital tests - as well as self and peer assessment."

The strategy says that it is a mistake to think that students will only engage with a task if it involves summative marks.

"The intense focus on measuring and validating work with marks can be at the expense of learning," the document says.

"The burden on teaching staff and administrative staff can be excessive and, along with the volume of assignments, the pressure of marking high volumes of work can impact on the quantity and quality feedback."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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