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Assessment and feedback in the first year

It is apparent from a number of sources, including the National Student Survey, that formative and diagnostic feedback and assessment figure highly in any list of student concerns. This was further evidenced in the material collected for The First Year Enhancement Theme: Student expectations, experiences and reflections on the first year, where students expressed their desire for more information on what was required for coursework, and more, faster and better detailed feedback.

Another of the strands of the First Year Enhancement Theme was Transforming assessment and feedback: enhancing integration and empowerment in the first year.

The resulting publication suggested that there were twelve principles of good assessment and feedback practice. These principles were combined with questions teachers might ask about their current practice, as follows. Good assessment and feedback practice should:

  1. Help to clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, standards)
    To what extent do students on your course have opportunities to engage actively with goals, criteria and standards before, during and after an assessment task?
  2. Encourage 'time and effort' on challenging learning tasks
    To what extent do your assessment tasks encourage regular study in and out of class and deep rather than surface learning?
  3. Deliver high-quality feedback information that helps learners to self-correct
    What kind of teacher feedback do you provide, and in what ways does it help students to self-assess and self-correct?
  4. Provide opportunities to act on feedback (to close any gap between current and desired performance)
    To what extent is feedback attended to and acted upon by students in your course and, if so, in what ways?
  5. Ensure that summative assessment has a positive impact on learning
    To what extent are your summative and formative assessments aligned and supportive of the development of valued qualities, skills and understanding?
  6. Encourage interaction and dialogue around learning (peer and teacher-student)
    What opportunities are there for feedback dialogue (peer and/or tutor-student) around assessment tasks in your course?
  7. Facilitate the development of self-assessment and reflection in learning
    To what extent are there formal opportunities for reflection, self-assessment or peer assessment in your course?
  8. Give choice in the topic, method, criteria, weighting or timing of assessments
    To what extent do students have choices in the topics, methods, criteria, weighting and/ or timing of learning and assessment tasks in your course?
  9. Involve students in decision-making about assessment policy and practice
    To what extent are students in your course kept informed or engaged in consultations regarding assessment policy decisions?
  10. Support the development of learning groups and communities
    To what extent do your assessment and feedback processes help to encourage social bonding and the development of learning communities?
  11. Encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem
    To what extent do your assessment and feedback processes enhance your students' motivation to learn and be successful?
  12. Provide information to teachers that can be used to help shape their teaching
    To what extent do your assessment and feedback processes inform and shape your teaching?

The publication provided examples of the implementation of these principles and case study examples.

The booklet argued that HEIs should implement the 12 principles and made the following recommendations:

  1. Use the principles to inform programme and strategy developments in higher education
  2. Use professional judgement about which principles to implement and their relative weighting
  3. Use a 'tight-loose' approach to implementation of the principles.
  4. Involve students actively in implementation of the principles.
  5. Use digital technologies to support and add value to the implementation.
  6. Devise ways of engaging students in a new teacher-student 'contract' around assessment and feedback processes.
  7. Align responses to the National Student Survey to the assessment principles.
  8. Explore new staff workload modules appropriate to new teaching and assessment principles.
  9. Address the effects in programme coherence of changes in assessment and feedback at module level.
  10. Evaluate the impact of changes brought about by the implementation of the assessment principles.
  11. Use the principles to inform institutional quality enhancement processes.
  12. Develop specific guidelines on what might constitute good teacher feedback.

Read full details about the recommendations that (HEIs) should implement.

Many courses, especially those with a high mathematical content, now use early formative tasks for diagnostic testing. These tests not only help students to recognise what is required of them outside the stressful environment of a 'high stakes' summative examination, they also provide staff with feedback on teaching and learning. 

Good assessment and feedback practice is not only about providing good information to students about their learning - it is also about providing good information to teachers that can be used to shape their teaching.  'The act of assessing has an effect on the assessor as well as the student.

In a similar vein, there is an increasing recognition of the need for blending for greater inclusivity by modify assessment tasks to make them 'congruent' with the backgrounds and aspirations of an increasingly diverse student population.

A further advantage offered by early, diagnostic tests is that they can be used to teach academic expectations and conventions through tasks that focus on important issues, like academic writing that avoids plagiarism; reading analytically and using appropriate ways to structure information. Feedback can be given in groups or by peers, but speed is vital. Attendance at these sessions can be made mandatory for certain groups of students who fail to achieve certain benchmarks, especially in early diagnostic tasks.

Overall, it is not only important that feedback acts as 'feedforward', helping students to self-assess and self-correct, but also that they are provided with the space and time in which to do so. Such a process should encourage interaction and dialogue around learning, peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher.  Read more about the principles of good formative assessment and feedback, and questions teachers might ask about their current practice.

The Personalisation strand of the First Year Experience Theme suggested that there were few examples, in Scotland at least, of personalised institutional responses to those students who had failed their resits at the end of the first year. It did offer one example, however, from the University of Abertay, Dundee which has changed its practices for providing support to students with resit examinations.

Formerly, such students received entirely generic reassessment information, but now personalised information is provided, which is specifically related to the types of reassessment they are being asked to complete. The university student records system is used to identify students with reassessments and the mode of assessment being retaken. Students receive personalised letters with key paragraphs inserted according to their records.

This system is being further developed so that students progressing to the next year of their course, who failed one or more units of assessment, will be alerted to the support available. Thus, it is no longer only failing students who are targeted but also those who may be at risk of failure in the new stage of their course.  Further details of one institution who have changed practices to provide support to students with resit examinations, with analysis of emerging issues.

Assessment is a key area where scholarship, or a lack of it, is visible. Staff therefore need to be very clear in designing assessment strategies for students, so they do not have to 'guess' what is required.

Assessment tasks should encourage 'time and effort' on challenging learning tasks; those which require regular study in and out of class and which promote deep rather than surface learning. The University of Stirling described the use of technology to improve assessment feedback in a case study for the Graduates for the 21st Century Theme. This includes the use of mp3 files to record comments from the tutor as she marks work.