Tests of resilience

Student satisfaction fell as the pandemic disrupted campus life, and while assessment wasn’t singled out, it’s worth assessing how fit it is for the future

July 22, 2021
Student wearing mask at the desk in an exam hall as a metaphor for a test of resilience
Source: Getty

The UK’s 2021 National Student Survey results were published last week in a flood of data points, to which I suggest adding one more: those surprised by the findings, zero per cent.

In every one of the 27 core questions asked after a year of unprecedented disruption, scores were lower than the year before. Overall satisfaction (which is couched in terms of “satisfaction with the quality of the course”) fell from 83 per cent to 75 per cent.

This must be demoralising for university staff, as well as for students whose university experience has simply not been what they had hoped it would be. That it is nobody’s fault is little comfort – most get to be an undergraduate only once.

The weirdness of the Covid-era campus can be painted a thousand ways. To give one example, a colleague with three children at different stages of university points out that her daughter met just 23 people in her first year: the people she lived with, and those in the flat next door.

And while remote learning has, by necessity, filled the gap and been delivered with alacrity and, in most cases, admirable and increasing levels of skill, there are innumerable things that cannot be fully replicated online. From lab work conducted via simulation (all those years playing Minecraft paid off, my colleague says of her son) to the social interaction that, let’s face it, is as important to students as anything else during their undergraduate years.

It has been a horrible situation, and it is a testament to the efforts made by university staff, and to the resilience of students, that the fall in NSS results is not sharper still. It is also worth adding that while the overall scores tell of universal decline, this was not true at every institution, and in our news report online you can read more about the nuances in the data by institution.

In the context of the overall decline in satisfaction, the NSS results relating to feedback and assessment are par for the course: falls of between two and six percentage points for the four questions asked, giving a combined satisfaction rate of 69 per cent this year, versus 73 per cent last year.

Compare this with the worryingly low 42 per cent of students who agreed that their institution had offered sufficient support for their mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic (a question added to the NSS for the first time), and it hardly suggests that feedback and assessment are the burning issue.

But they are fundamental pieces of the jigsaw of undergraduate study: seen as crucial elements of quality assurance, but historically a source of dissatisfaction in the context of broader NSS results – to say nothing of the wider angst about grade inflation.

So following the disruption of 2020-21, what do academics think of the state of assessment in particular? Should the shift to new modes of teaching and learning over the past 12 months be seized as an opportunity to permanently reshape approaches to assessment, too?

In our cover story, we ask seven scholars in a variety of disciplines to address these questions – and what is most striking is how widely their views range.

One argues that exams uniquely enforce learning; another that they interfere with good teaching. A third says that they are not “authentic” to real-life situations; while two others argue that, actually, they are.

While technological advances and related changes to graduate careers may no longer require the memorisation of large quantities of information, an ability to master more generic skills and to apply information quickly and under pressure remains a key graduate attribute.

So are exams that test such abilities, within the context of disciplinary knowledge, still the best (or perhaps only) way to deliver that?

It is likely that such questions will provoke responses as diverse as those offered by our contributors, both within disciplines as well as across them. But as marking season comes to an end and academics head off to the beach, the future of assessment might be something worth pondering as they gaze at the horizon far out to sea.

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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