Pass the exam hall to enter Dragons' Den

Innovative assessment techniques are being used to challenge students, finds Rebecca Attwood

October 2, 2008

Assessments modelled on a pub quiz or on the television show Dragons' Den are among the unusual practices pioneered in universities as an alternative to traditional exams and essays, a survey by Times Higher Education has revealed.

Amid growing concern that traditional "sit-down" tests could encourage students to adopt an "instrumentalist" approach to their learning, universities are embracing new ways to challenge their students.

At Aston University, 230 psychology students were tested in teams in the format of a pub quiz at the end of term. "We felt that a pub quiz would promote interaction, mutual dependence and shared problem-solving," Peter Reddy, a teaching fellow, said.

Engineering students at Harper Adams University College have been pitching their designs before a Dragons' Den-style panel of staff members, while retail management students at Bournemouth University complete a five-month consultancy exercise that culminates in an hour-long boardroom presentation in front of senior managers from major retailers, including Tesco and B&Q.

"My estimate is that no more than 40 per cent of a student's (degree) classification would be derived from traditional exams - and often less, depending on their study programme," said Abigail Hind, head of educational development at Harper Adams.

Some students are now formally assessed on "wikis" - websites that can be edited by others - or websites they create on their own or with fellow students. Students are also submitting internet podcasts, video diaries and blogs.

Role plays and simulated scenarios are another format. Students taking a module on the European Union at the University of Salford act out roles in simulated EU negotiations, while students of interdisciplinary science at the University of Leicester act as expert witnesses in a mock courtroom trial.

The Leicester students also produce a podcast on evolution and a video on climate change, and design a website for Olympics 2012 on science in sport.

Derek Raine, professor of interdisciplinary science at Leicester, said: "I believe this method exploits students' potential to a greater degree than traditional teaching methods. Some institutions are lucky enough to have students who will succeed however they teach them. With the 40 per cent participation rate in higher education, most institutions are not in that position and they need ways of engaging students and making sure they do reach their full potential. This is a way of approaching diversity."

Liz McDowell, director of the Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning at Northumbria University, said that while most assessment in universities remained traditional, more radical forms were "high impact" and could be "transformational" for students.

"Traditional assignments and exams are very routine ... and students can become very instrumental in their approach. Non-traditional assessment can 'jolt' them out of their routine and give them a different perspective on their subject.

"There will always be some people who are sceptical - there is this idea that something is not rigorous unless it is a sit-down exam. However, a lot of research questions whether exams are really so great - students often approach unseen exams as 'memory tests' and cram in things they do not necessarily remember afterwards."

She added: "Graduates need a wide range of skills, and the ability to apply their knowledge in different ways, not just the ability to pass exams."

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