On students’ terms: offering options in assessment to empower learning

By giving students some control over how they are assessed, educators are likely to see a marked increase in engagement and motivation, writes Paul McFarlane

Paul McFarlane's avatar
University College London
24 Mar 2023
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Assessment is essential in ensuring student success and a positive university experience. In national surveys, students frequently complain about a lack of assessment diversity, claiming that assessments are taxing, rather than intellectually demanding, and inauthentic and can harm their mental health. They report an over-reliance on traditional formats, such as essays and exams, and believe that these formats neither adequately reflect their skills or the breadth of their learning nor allow for creative or innovative thinking.

Students value variety in assessment formats because it allows them to demonstrate learning in various ways while developing intellectual and transferable real-world skills. As a result, there is growing interest in offering students options for and within assessment. This student-centred pedagogical strategy gives students agency and control over how their knowledge is evaluated and so promotes greater learner engagement, motivation and self-directed learning.

Benefits of offering options in assessment for student learning

1. Increased engagement: Students choose assessment tasks that match their interests, strengths and goals, motivating and engaging them in the learning process. Students are more likely to own their learning and perform better when they are more invested in their assessment.

2. Skills development: Students develop more skills through handling a variety of assessment options. Some students may choose a format to improve critical thinking and analysis, while others may prefer a presentation to improve communication.

3. Promotion of inclusivity and diversity: Assessment options let students demonstrate their learning in ways that suit their needs and backgrounds, promoting inclusivity and diversity. Options in assessment can help students with disabilities demonstrate their learning in different ways.

4. Preparation for real-world challenges: Mixing up assessment types prepares students for real-world tasks and formats that require flexibility and adaptability. Students who experience a variety of assessment options are better prepared for careers and life.

However, implementing multiple assessment options poses challenges. Ensuring that all formats meet the same academic standards can be difficult with a range of assessment types. This can result in grading inconsistencies and potentially lower-quality work. To address this issue, establish clear guidelines and expectations for each assessment format and ensure all students have equal access to academic support. Multiple assessment options can also cause students to become confused and anxious, affecting their learning and performance. Educators can help students make informed decisions by communicating the purpose and expectations of each assessment format and providing guidance and resources.

How to incorporate assessment options into your course

The UCL Jill Dando Institute for Security and Crime Science is a multidisciplinary education and research department with a novel approach to understanding and dealing with real-world crime and security issues. Similarly, there is a diverse range of innovative assessment formats available across programmes related to what might be required by operational policing and security practitioners.

We were interested in exploring the stated benefits of options in assessment in one of the undergraduate modules. In the first week of term, students are given detailed instructions for three assessment formats for that module: essay, briefing report and YouTube video. Within each format, students have an additional level of choice regarding the topic they want to work on for their assessment. Every week throughout the 11-week term, students are encouraged to consider their preferred format and topic for producing their best work, and links are made to the pedagogical evidence supporting this approach and the likelihood of better outcomes. In the second half of the term, students are encouraged to start drafting outlines with feedback offered on their progress so far. Students discuss their topics and how they might connect to the module's goals.

While students like the idea of having a choice, it takes them a few weeks to adjust to this approach because they’re used to being told what to do.

The initial response has been extremely positive. So far, the essay or report has been chosen by the vast majority of students. There was a noticeable improvement in engagement with the course content and assessment outcomes for most students when compared with the previous three years. Student feedback on providing a variety of assessment methods was highly favourable.

Tips to help other educators implement options in assessment 

1. Clarify the purpose: Define the objectives of the assessment approach at the start of the course, connecting student feedback, pedagogic evidence and the intention to improve engagement and outcomes.

2. Communicate expectations: To help students make informed assessment choices, explain the expectations for each format. Make time for questions on the assessment during teaching sessions.

3. Detailed information: Provide students with clear written instructions, marking rubrics and examples of high-quality work to help them understand what is expected of them.

4. Incorporate feedback: Incorporate constructive feedback on students’ chosen format and topics throughout the course. This can include providing opportunities for peer review, self-assessment and instructor feedback on drafts or outlines.

5. Ensure consistency in grading: To maintain consistent standards, educators should ensure transparency and consistency in the grading of different formats. Seek the advice of external reviewers where necessary.

Paul McFarlane is a senior teaching fellow in the Jill Dando Institue of Security and Crime Science at the University College London.

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