Anthropology - Developing undergraduate assessment

Students say they find coursework essays more meaningful to write (for example, as an essay now carries a greater weighting, doing extra reading is considered ‘worth it’); some colleagues are finding them more meaningful to mark.


Catherine Allerton




In 2018/19, Anthropology streamlined the assessment on its undergraduate programme(s). The overall amount of summative assessment has been reduced, and the bottleneck of coursework essays during vacations removed. This streamlining has introduced diversity of assessment formats, but aimed to reduce student stress and build familiarity with the formats by mirroring assessment formats across the years. 

Target audience

Undergraduate students in the department of Anthropology.


Before 2018/19, most (full unit) courses in Anthropology were assessed by coursework essays (2 essays, each worth 15%) and an exam (worth 70%). Essays were due on first day of term following teaching (e.g. MT coursework essays due on first day of LT).

The department proposed a restructuring and reduction of assessments to student focus groups in 2017/18. They were unanimously in favour of a new system which would reduce the overall amount of summative assessment, and increase the weighting carried by student coursework.

In the new system (put in place for 2018/19), summative assessments continue to be diverse across the degree programme but are simplified within courses. Courses are assessed in one of three main formats (chosen to fit with pedagogical aims of course):

    • 100% coursework (a long essay due at beginning of the following term; word lengths increase as students progress through the degree programme)
    • 100% coursework (position pieces; continuous assessment throughout the term)
    • 100% exam (either ‘traditional’ or, for some option courses, take-home)

These different methods of assessment are mirrored across the different years of the degree (to reduce student anxiety about ‘new’ methods of assessment in years 2 or 3). The bottleneck of large numbers of coursework essays during vacations has also been reduced.

The main motivating factor was student reports (in SSLC meetings, informally to teachers, and to academic mentors) of high levels of stress regarding quantity of coursework.

The old structure created bottlenecks for students: although students were encouraged to prepare coursework during term time, they effectively spent Christmas and Easter vacations writing large numbers of summative coursework essays during vacations (as well as other kinds of assessments). Some 2nd year students could have up to 5 essays to write over one vacation; they returned from vacation already feeling ‘burnt out’.

In addition, although exams remained most significant part of assessment, students didn’t feel they had enough time to revise.

Finally, students felt that the amount of effort they put into coursework essays was not reflected in what the essay was ‘worth’ (15% for each essay on a full unit).


The scheme has not yet been fully evaluated, but by the start of 2019/20, there has been:

  • A very large reduction in complaints about stress at SSLC meetings
  • A reduction in staff marking workload for summative assessments
  • A reduction in student exam stress (with fewer exams and more time to revise for each)

Students say they find coursework essays more meaningful to write (for example, as an essay now carries a greater weighting, doing extra reading is considered ‘worth it’); some colleagues are finding them more meaningful to mark.

The NSS for 2018/19 has shown improved scores for Assessment & Feedback (from 61% to 78%). BA Social Anthropology also outperformed the sector top quartile average for Overall Satisfaction.

Next steps

The department will mainly be observing and evaluating this substantial change. However, the new system has brought some issues to the fore:

  • The department will consider whether the 3rd year dissertation is now an outlier. Currently a half-unit course, it has a similar word-count to the coursework of whole-unit courses. Converting it to a whole-unit course may appropriate. It may also be useful to employ position pieces (familiar to students from the assessment of other courses) to scaffold students while they develop their dissertation arguments.
  • The word-count of coursework essays increases for each year of the programme; the department is considering if the additional word-count is necessary, or just a convention. Could students write at a higher level, but to the same length?
  • Currently, no second-year course is assessed by position pieces. The department will continue to consider whether this mode would be appropriate for any courses, as using position pieces would further support familiarity with assessment formats across the years.

It is difficult to stand back and consider assessment on a programme as a whole, but very helpful. [Additional guidance is available from the Eden Centre.]

Any review needs to take into account the experience of students on joint programmes. For example, while students on Social Anthropology have a variety of assessment formats in the second year, students on Anthropology and Law now have a predominance of exams (however, they seem satisfied with this format).

Reducing assessments does not need to reduce student learning or their engagement. One key approach has been to write questions for coursework essays that prompt students to engage across several weeks of course content, rather than focus on a single topic.