Assessment designs that consider future professional landscapes for HE graduates, need to recognise that as our world changes, so too our learning, teaching and assessment practices must find new forms to help support learners not just react to current trends or to repeat dominant patterns of thinking, but be capable of constructively reappraising their approaches and purse divergent futures through their learning choices.
As far as possible, we as educators, must try to design assessments that foster the kinds of attitudes and dispositions, as well as the knowledge and skills, which learners need for the variety of situations they will be confronted with during their studies and throughout their lives. In a continually changing graduate environment, there are calls to develop ‘flexible’ assessment that shifts priorities from formulaic approaches of content learning to tasks that focus on the process of learning and that are sensitive to the needs of students, giving them more control over assessment processes (Boud and Soler, 2016, Jones-Devitt, Lawton and Mayne, 2016; Ryan and Tilbury, 2013).
Proliferation of new digital technologies coupled with increasing diversification of learner profiles and pathways through HE provides a timely platform for developing flexible assessment regimes, wherein technology is an enabler for personalising student learning experiences. The most effective strategies for achieving such flexible assessment will utilise a variety of accessible and inclusive approaches, employing a carefully designed and balanced range of authentic assessment tasks that enable all students to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do.
There are multiple ways to be flexible with assessments while still challenging students, maintaining rigour, and continuing to provide the required structure and support. Some useful considerations for thinking proactively about flexible assessment design include:
Begin with Inclusivity – Assessment processes need to provide an accessible, equitable and relevant learning experience for all students across a course of study.
- Using a variety of assessment rather than relying on one or two signature assessment methods ensures each student has the opportunity to enhance their strengths and challenge their less-developed learning and skills, helping to develop a broader range of potential learning outcomes.
- It is important to give careful thought to how combinations of different assessment methods and tasks might meet the learning needs and preferences of diverse student groups, including those studying at different locations, from different cultural/educational backgrounds, with additional learning needs, or with protected characteristics.
- Another inclusive strategy is to provide students with the opportunity for negotiated and managed choice between an accepted range of ‘alternative’ assessment methods. It is important that where choice between alternative assessment modes and methods is provided, equivalences need to be carefully set out for students in terms of learning expectations.
- Students need to be gradually introduced to the idea of flexible assessment at a module level, where early low-stakes assessment tasks are broken-down into separate, yet interrelated, assessment components each of which affording the learner a degree of choice in how they proceed, as well as regular formative feedback opportunities to discuss progress.
- It is important that we give consideration to the balance of flexible assessment arrangements as they relate to formative and summative work, as well as the distribution and sequencing of assessment types across the course, such that all students are enabled to progressively master required skills, learn from feedback and demonstrate all intended learning outcomes.
For further information on how inclusivity can be proactively embedded in assessment designs, see LTE Bites No. 3 Inclusive Assessment.
Design Learning-Focused Assessment – Learning, teaching and assessment activities need to be aligned at course level to ensure assessment processes and tasks are authentic, designed to achieve key outcomes, and direct students towards appropriate learning.
- Assessment is ‘learning-focused’ when it is designed to actively involve students in assessment processes in ways which develop their ability to self-monitor, regulate their own learning behaviour, and when feedback is appropriately future facing and can be acted upon in timely and meaningful ways.
- Affording learners a degree of personal choice and agency in how they approach assessment tasks, rather than allowing for a narrow range of responses that learners feel they must imitate to be successful, can increase their sense of responsibility and confidence, improve the quality of their work, and provide important, timely, information to tutors for improving assessment tasks.
- For flexible assessment to be effective in developing the kinds of learning desired, the scope of and parameters for flexibility and choice, as well as what aspects are non-negotiable, in assessment need to be determined at course-level and be clearly articulated through course and module assessment strategies and outcomes.
- How we prepare students for assessment becomes increasingly important in online learning environments. It is a good idea to think about introducing easily actionable ‘formative’ opportunities for students to trial new practices and build confidence in using tools and technologies. Selecting 2-4 tools that work for you and your students and building in regular time and space for focused practise and knowledge checks can help to keep students on track without them becoming overwhelmed.
- Effective feedback is more important than ever in instances where there is need to accommodate flexible study patterns, playing a key role in mitigating against the risk of isolation and alienation. Folding in regular formative feedback throughout the assessment processes is a good way of checking for individual understanding; giving students an indication of where they are in relation to achieving learning outcomes or standards, where they need to progress to and how they will be able to reach the expected level.
- ‘Building in’ low-stakes opportunities for regular feedback dialogue with (and between) students can help to clarify learning goals, provide students with an opportunity to clarify what it means to ‘do’ assessment in certain contexts (be it face-to-face, blended or online), and increase their confidence and self-efficacy regarding key tasks and behaviours.
For further information on how inclusivity can be proactively embedded in assessment designs, see LTE Bites No. 5 Designing Formative Assessment.
Prioritise Transparency and Shared Understanding – Course-wide assessment and feedback processes are clearly articulated, relevant to context, and designed to enable action in the ways they foster student learning.
- For learners to feel capable of fully engaging in their learning in higher education, it is important that they have a good understanding of the requirements of assessment and how the overall assessment design fits together, including familiarity with the related terminology, standards and criteria, assessment methods, skills and techniques.
- Devising early opportunities for students to actively engage with criteria for learning facilitated through activities such as self-evaluation, and the analysis of exemplar work using rubrics, can have positive effects on learning, helping to students to ‘see’ standards and criteria in concrete ways and develop their ability to judge, select and apply appropriate approaches and techniques to assessment tasks for the purposes of learning.
- Without a sense of what quality performance involves and entails, it is difficult for students to progress. The key here is that the greater the number of carefully-guided opportunities students must engage with task-goals, criteria, and exemplars, the more able they will be to internalise requirements and develop the capacity to regulate their own work.
- Being explicit early on about what support is available to students within the assessment process and how and when they can access it is key to setting clear expectations regarding learner engagement and the student role in certain assessment tasks.
- It is important that we make students aware of the technical and practical requirements of assessment tasks. Where assessment tasks include specific requirements such as defined start and finish times or restricted file sizes, be succinct and precise in your guidance to students captured in course and module documentation.
For further information on how inclusivity can be proactively embedded in assessment designs, see LTE Bites No. 4 Assessment Literacy.
Useful References and Resources
To further support your future assessment preparations, please refer to Teesside University’s ‘Considerations and Resources for Digital Platforms and Tools Supporting Alternative Assessments’ resource and the University’s Assessment and Feedback Policy.