Diversifying assessment

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Assessment is an integral part of the learning process. Adopting a blend of assessment methods can make a significant, positive impact on student performance. There is a wealth of academic research into the nature of learning to support teachers in making informed decisions about their assessment.

The starting point for course- and programme-level assessment design is to identify exactly what we expect our students to learn (the intended learning outcomes). This will include the areas of knowledge and the critical thinking, disciplinary and other academic skills they will be developing. Defining these learning outcomes enables teachers to make better choices about both formative and summative assessments. This approach takes us beyond notions of exams as either being good or bad, or assuming that variety alone is adequate justification for diversification of assessment. This process underpinned the undergraduate programme review undertaken by LSE during 2017/18.

Diversifying assessment methods can also allow a greater range of students to demonstrate their abilities, particularly when academics design methods to be inclusive (see Accessible assessment.) 

Key areas of consideration for assessment are explored below. 

Formative and summative assessment

Successful assessment is a planned activity organised around what a course or programme expects students to learn. We might call these expectations ‘learning outcomes’ and they are commonly stated in the form: By the end of this course, students will be able to do X. The role of assessment is to check how well students have achieved in relation to these learning outcomes. This is done through formative and summative assessment. Formative assessment is a tool for checking student progress and offering them feedback on how to improve during the course of their studies. Summative assessment judges how well a student has done in relation to set marking criteria that have been drawn from the learning outcomes and offers a final grade or mark (Earl & Katz, 2006). In this way, formative assessment ‘informs’ future learning and summative assessment summarises learning. Good assessment protocol aligns formative assessment and summative assessment with learning outcomes so that students can implement what they have learned from the formative experiences into subsequent summative assessments (see Biggs, 2003).

Assessment load

Diversification of assessment does not necessarily mean adding multiple new methods of assessment to single courses. The purpose is not to overload our students with more assessment points but rather to enable our students – where appropriate depending on the nature of particular courses and the particular discipline – to learn progressively from completing a range of different assessments with the accompanying skills development that this will involve. The assessment of courses should be based on the intended learning outcomes; therefore the range of assessment methods should be developed by reflecting on the ‘best’ way to assess these outcomes. Where courses have more than one assessment task it is also important to reflect upon the weight that is given to each task and for there to be a clear rationale behind such weighting. Moreover, spreading assessment across the academic year with a mix of methods of assessment and opportunities for formative development is likely to induce students to study progressively rather than to reward cramming at the end of the academic year cycle.

Assessment and feedback

A diversified set of assessments spread evenly throughout the academic year opens up possibilities for making better use of feedback opportunities. All moments of assessment are opportunities for learning and these are clearly more effective when they are embedded in ongoing processes of feedback and dialogue among staff and students. The only real difference between formative and summative assessments is whether performance on these assessment tasks is used as a formal measure of a student’s achievement and thus contributes to the final grade of the students. A mix of formative and summative assessment is desirable to encourage students to work steadily and progressively towards the achievement of their learning outcomes and to ensure students have opportunities to practice and improve their performance. In this vein enabling students to receive student feedback on all forms of assessed work can also be considered an integral part of the learning process. The objective is to enable our students to learn well and perform successfully. Students should receive feedback on formative assessment within three weeks of submission, as defined in the Codes of Good Practice. In addition, students will receive feedback on summative assessment completed during a course prior to the examination period.

You may find it useful to look at the advice and resources relating to providing effective feedback on our website.

Supporting our students

A combination of methods of assessment is good practice from an inclusive design perspective. Students are likely to perform differently on different assessments depending on a range of factors including cultural and educational backgrounds, mental wellbeing and so on. This does not mean making assessment ‘easier’ to benefit a particular group of students. The underlying principle behind assessment remains unchanged, that is assessment should be designed to support learning and to enable students to demonstrate that they have acquired course or programme learning outcomes (Waterfield and West, 2006). But at the same time, it seems fair to design in a range of different assessment tasks - with clear guidelines, marking criteria and marking schemes that are made available to students from the outset – so that success is achievable for all students.

Assessment and creativity

Moving away from an overwhelming reliance on closed book time-constrained exam-based assessment may provide academics and students alike with an opportunity for creativity in the design and development of assessments, and creativity on the part of our students as they experience new forms of learning and develop a range of skills. This will also equip them to be effective members of society and participants in the labour market.

Stress and wellbeing

It is clear that concentrating the majority of summative assessment in a series of one-off time constrained 100% examinations mainly in the summer term is extremely stressful for many students. It can also appear to depreciate the value of prior learning on the programme by reducing a year or several years’ hard work into a single exam period. A bunch of assessments at particular times in the academic year such as the end of reading weeks or at the end of term may also have the same effect. A regular spread of different assessment tasks throughout the academic year reduces this seemingly ‘all or nothing’ mind-set and also encourages a more incremental, progressive approach to learning.

Assessment and employability

Some colleagues object to the idea of higher education, and the ways of thinking and practicing in a particular discipline, being reducible to preparing students to join the labour market. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that upon leaving higher education, students will be looking for jobs and becoming involved in other societal activities where they will want to make a valuable and effective contribution drawing on a range of skills. Time-constrained examinations test students’ ability to perform under pressure in an isolated environment. However, work and other activities are often done collectively, over extended periods of time and involve a broad range of skills - such as the ability to communicate and collaborate in virtual settings, present ideas orally and work in groups or teams. This is another factor which suggests a diversity of assessment is advantageous for our students.

New and revised course proposal procedure

Developing a course should start by considering what it is that students would be expected to learn and reflecting on the skills that they will develop as a result of studying on this course. Typically this will be a list of 4-5 intended learning outcomes. Since students are studying at different levels the learning outcomes should reflect this - for further guidance on setting appropriate learning outcomes teachers should consult with the Eden Centre.

Once these have been established, teachers should reflect upon the best ways to assess these outcomes – thinking about the methods of assessment and the conditions under which the assessment task will be taken. While summative assessment offers a chance to test and grade student learning, consideration should also be given to the role of formative assessment – where students are assessed as a means of supporting their future learning. Having developed the intended learning outcomes and assessment tasks, teachers should then consult with the Eden Centre departmental managers and their Academic Subject Librarian to gather insight into how best to structure and resource the course. At this stage a Course and Programme Information System (CAPIS) form should be completed.

This guidance summarises the process for approving changes to summative assessment or a new course

You may also wish to have a look at some alternative forms for resits


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