The modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities, according to a recent study.
It is not just the volume of assessment but also the ways that students are evaluated that is hindering meaningful learning, say Tansy Jessop, professor of research informed teaching at Solent University, and Carmen Tomas from the Teaching Transformation Programme at the University of Nottingham.
Their research has compared assessment data from 73 programmes in 14 UK universities, split evenly between research-intensive universities and teaching-intensive universities.
The study, published in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, found that there is a large difference in the forms of assessment that take place across the two types of institution.
Research-intensive universities were found to have a greater proportion of examinations; whereas teaching-intensives have higher varieties of assessment, such as projects or portfolios.
Although examinations are often seen as more rigorous and are useful in preventing plagiarism, having to undergo a large volume is linked to students learning to simply regurgitate facts, as well as high stress, the report says.
Similarly, although a greater variety of assessment is more inclusive and recognises the different types of learning, assessing students in a lot of different ways can confuse them and mean that they are never able to truly master what is required of them, it says.
“We know all is not well with assessment and feedback,” the authors say. “In the UK, it manifests itself in relatively low National Student Survey scores compared to teaching quality and overall satisfaction scores.”
The problem is “systematic and structural” and results from having highly modular curricula, according to the report. Across both university types, students are “struggling and juggling” with assessment loads, they say. “Lighter assessment loads would make room for ‘slow’ and deep learning.”
Having a large number of assessments that contribute to the final degree grade, more examinations and more varieties of assessment all run the risk of “surface approaches” to learning, where students end up deploying tactical strategies to cope with the burden, the report says.
Professor Jessop told Times Higher Education that the research showed that UK universities needed “a cultural shift” towards fewer assessments that affect the final grade and fewer examinations. The problem is that degrees are made up of modules and each module must be assessed, she explained.
Professor Jessop said that what both research and teaching-intensive universities needed was a “whole-system” approach to designing curricula, so that students could make the most of the knowledge available to them.
Increasing the amount of tasks that don’t contribute towards the final degree mark, and that are more similar to an academic drafting a paper or conducting an experiment, would be a more meaningful way to help students to learn, she said.