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Assessment of and for learning

One major focus of the Integrative Assessment Theme was assessment of and for learning, which was described by one contributor as 'the two cultures of assessment' i.e. summative and formative. Many commentators have argued that the former has superseded the latter and is crowding it out, and that there needs to be a rebalancing of the two (arguments against the use excessive or inappropriate summative assessment and ways HEIs are exploring alternatives to ensure summative assessment has a positive impact on learning.

Part of the way that rebalancing might be achieved is through a partnership between students and staff, rather than a blame culture, which sees assessment failure as entirely the student's fault. For a more detailed discussion on the idea of 'two cultures' and innovative ways of assessing including definitions and purposes of assessment and feedback.

The Integrative Assessment Theme offers a diagrammatic version of strategies designed to rebalance the assessment of and assessment for learning. There are four elements that support the strategies. They are: 

  1. Feedforward assessments
  2. Cumulative coursework
  3. Better understood expectations and standards
  4. Speedier Feedback.

Suggestions on redressing the balance between formative and summative tasks are provided by the Assessment Theme summary document and Transforming assessment and feedback; part of the First Year Enhancement Theme.

Both suggest that there is a widespread belief that a major step forward for assessment practices will be to provide more opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes and encourage positive motivational beliefs and self esteem through, for example:

  • the progressive weighting of assignments so that at the start of a course the summative element is a relatively small proportion compared to the formative, to a situation at the end where the proportions are reversed and/or a consistent number of challenging learning tasks that foster a deep approach to learning, but which also encourage a consistent approaches to study throughout the semester (Principle 2: encourage 'time and effort' on challenging learning tasks).  Such tasks need to be balanced, however, with the objective of encouraging success (and thus motivation), especially early on, and allowing students the time and space to work on tasks (Principle 11: encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem)
  • the use of computer-aided assessment (CAA), which is seen as an unthreatening environment for students and one that can provide instant, high-quality feedback
  • delivering high quality feedback generally, which provides 'feedforward' and which also offers students the opportunity to act on the information (Principle 4: Provide opportunities to act on feedback (to close any gap between current and desired performance)
  •  the application of self and peer-assessment, which are ideal for formative purposes. The notion of reflective self assessment is explored at (Principle 7: Facilitate the development of self-assessment and reflection in learning)
  • the development of personal development planning (PDP), which offers an opportunity to embed the notion of an ongoing process, using a variety of sources as evidence, including formative assessment tasks.

Another, more detailed view of the summative / formative balance was provided at a workshop as part of the Assessment Theme.

The entire issue of assessment culture, the means of changing it where and when necessary and barriers to such changes were examined at the Enhancement Theme conference concerned with issues of validity, reliability and fairness. The barriers were described as follows:

The threat to formative assessment from modularisation, which raised issues related to creating a culture that encourages a student-centred approach to learning. Precisely what threat or threats were not elucidated by this particular group though there are a number that could be conceived namely:

  1. the fact that breaking a subject down into modules means that continuity, consistency, and a continuous learning curve is difficult to achieve; that it becomes impossible to cover anything in depth; and that the aim becomes one of just finishing the module (summative) rather than attempting a solid basis for an educational continuum
  2. the danger as a result of a loss of ownership by both staff and students of an inclusive and fair, learning and teaching process (through formative assessment) to those who are only interested in results and figures, and that prevention of this can only be achieved by engagement of the support of senior managers/academic staff, which is not always possible.

Fear of the loss of ownership of the learning and teaching process by staff if students were to be involved in the design of their own learning.

Some participants felt that the influence of professional accreditation bodies could stifle innovation and free-thinking in learning and teaching methods.

Lack of the courage to be innovative: the need for innovation was viewed as being necessary (the example of the University of Edinburgh veterinary school was cited - this particular department has started to use case-based learning in the first year therefore exposing students to work-related learning from the outset of their course).

Finally, the need to re-educate colleagues and senior managers/staff was emphasised by several contributors in order that a truly student-centred approach to learning is to be adopted, requiring as it would, a shift in culture and practice.

Some incentives were suggested:

  • As a means of overcoming the fear of failure among students (the 'prat' factor as one group termed it): it was observed that students engage well in tasks that are peer-assessed as they fear and respect criticism from their peers (a point that could be applied just as much to teachers and lecturers).
  • The importance of the physical environment in which teaching and learning are conducted was stressed; indeed the question was asked as to how much learning goes on outside the programme/formal teaching hours. This in turn raised estates issues and the need to ensure such opportunities for informal learning and communication existed e.g. a common room/coffee machine at departmental/school level for staff and students.
  • It was felt that a range of assessment methods was needed even in the first year of study and the importance of the first-year curriculum (and in particular the importance of articulating and establishing clear assessment criteria in the first year of study) were cited as having a bearing the improvement of retention ratesThe BA Honours degree in Theology and Religion at Oxford Brookes University recognised the 'tyranny of assessment' through an analysis of student options. It was clear that the deciding factor in making a choice either to take or not take a module was largely determined by the way it was assessed rather than by its content and its appeal to students. The answer was to allow students to determine the method by which they are assessed.

The fundamental idea is to match the learning style of the student with the assessment technique that is right for them, but which still demonstrates achievement of the learning objectives. Limits have to be set: for instance a learning log can be used on no more than two occasions and students are encouraged to adopt some assessment methods that challenge them, rather than opting for ones in which they feel most comfortable. It should be noted that these options are not introduced until Stage 2 of the course.

The fundamental nature of these changes meant that the university required the entire course to be revalidated, and at the time of its write-up in the Personalisation of the First Year booklet (2008), that approval had not been given.