When we refer to flexibility in learning, we usually focus on flexible instruction: we strive to implement instruction that supports more flexibility in time, space, pedagogy, and technology (Jones-Devitt, 2020). However, being flexible allows us to change more than our instruction. It is now clear that the challenges of recent events will, in a comparatively short period of time, lead to significant developments in flexible learning and how the student learning experience is mediated, accessed, and assessed.

The Case for Flexible Assessment

Developing and deploying flexible and innovative assessment supports the need to be responsive to the requirements of the hybrid model of learning and teaching Teesside University has committed to for the upcoming academic year.

Prioritising flexible assessment arrangements in a hybrid model means shifting our focus beyond simply determining viable ‘alternative’ assessment arrangements in the short-term, on to sustainable approaches and designs that are sensitive to the needs and circumstances of students, giving them more control and ownership over assessment processes – with no learning deficit.

This view of flexibility extends to choices students make about assessment methods and formats, as well as the extent to which they have an active role in shaping the assessment approaches and processes they are involved in (Irwin and Hepplestone, 2012).

The proliferation of learning technologies and tools coupled with increasing diversification of learner profiles and pathways through our courses provides the context for developing flexible assessment, wherein technology is a key enabler for a personalised and active blended learning experience.

At the level of the curriculum, the most effective strategies for achieving such flexible assessment arrangements will utilise a variety of accessible and inclusive approaches and tools, employing a carefully designed and balanced range of authentic assessment tasks that enable all students to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do.

For such strategies to be successful there is need to create environments wherein assessment, learning and teaching are not artificially separated, but where assessment and feedback are fully and seamlessly integrated into an holistic, course-focused, view of the learning process. Crucially, such a view helps to frame curriculum and assessment design to fully consider the learning journey and experience of each student and to critically evaluate what needs to be assessed and how within a hybrid model.

What can we do? A practice perspective

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. Learners should only be assessed on topics that have already been taught and which align clearly with these outcomes.

Increased student choice and input in assessment processes can also have a positive effect on student engagement and motivation; the exercise of choice and self-direction, leading to a greater feeling of autonomy and control (Boud and Soler, 2016). Building in such flexibility and student input into defining the nature of assessment tasks helps support students to make judgements on and decisions about their work encouraging them to be more proactive in terms of their learning roles and trajectories.

This flexibility has to take into consideration how students see themselves as learners. Are they prepared to take responsibility for their own learning? It may not be appropriate to have flexible assessment for students who have just entered a course as new learners. Equally, allowing an unlimited choice within assessment design may penalise those students whose self-regulatory abilities are not as well developed.

Instead, students need to be gradually introduced to the idea of flexible assessment at a module level, where early low-stakes (formative) assessment tasks are broken-down into separate, yet interrelated, assessment components allowing them to complete tasks in a proficient way and improve skills without feeling overwhelmed.

There are multiple ways to be flexible with assessments while still challenging students, maintaining rigour, and continuing to provide the required structure and support. Flexibility in assessment is about responding to students’ individual learning needs as well as needs of the curriculum. The key is making assessment relevant to the learner. Students are far more likely to learn, remember and value work that has relevancy and application than an assessment that they are made to do for the sake of it.

To this end, the two strategies described below include considerations for embedding flexibility around ‘How’ (methods and formats) and ‘What’ (focus and content) students are assessed on.

Students Choose How to Assess

Moving beyond providing a range of assessment types that are predefined by the tutor, one flexible strategy is to provide students with the opportunity for negotiated and managed choice between an accepted range of ‘alternative’ assessment methods. Encouraging students to work closely with lecturers to agree on individually equitable assessment arrangements in this way can empower students to take responsibility for their learning and improve student engagement – a critical consideration at a time when students are likely to need to shift between blended and fully online delivery models.

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. Available alternative assessment arrangements should be equivalent in both their relative weightings and capacity to demonstrate the learning outcomes and assessment criteria of the module, as well as the level of challenge they present students (students should be able to complete either task with the skills being developed).

Students Choose What to Assess

Another flexible assessment strategy is to consider utilising a ‘patchwork assessment process’. Patchwork assessment processes provide a cumulative set of formative assessment opportunities, each of which are complete tasks in their own right, which are then be synthesised and ‘stitched’ together to produce a fully-justified summative account based around an agreed theme or topic (Jones-Devitt, Lawton and Mayne, 2016). Here formative assessment is thoroughly integrated within the learning and teaching process. By utilising a diverse range of assessment methods which underpin the patchwork process, validity, authenticity and inclusivity can be improved, maximising the relevance to students within their own learning context.

A patchwork assessment process is not a random set of items or ideas. Each patch is a carefully designed component of a broader process of assessment within a module, acting as a pivotal (formative) episode of learning. It is important that patches are designed to link to intended learning outcomes, clearly articulate anticipated skills students will develop, and are tailored to authentic contexts – i.e. consider professional practice when responding to a client brief; review and critique a journal article; analyse a data set.

Providing regular, structured, and scaffolded formative opportunities is essential to develop student engagement in the patchwork assessment process, but it is the student’s selection of patches and justificatory narrative that are important in making the final summative work a unique and authentic account of student learning development. It can be a good idea to decide on core and optional components in advance and to make these clear to students. Different learning technology and tools can be used within the patchwork process to support and enhance student learning; however it is important that the technological infrastructure and processes are in place at the beginning for students.

References and Useful Linked Resources

Boud, D., and Soler, R. (2016). Sustainable assessment revisited. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), pp. 400-413.

Irwin, B., and Hepplestone, S. (2012). Examining increased flexibility in assessment formats. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37(7), pp. 773-785.

Jones-Devitt, S., Lawton, M., and Mayne, W. (2016). Patchwork Assessment Practice Guide. Advance HE Publication: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/patchwork-assessment-practice-guide

Jones-Devitt, S. (2020). Essential Frameworks for Enhancing Student Success: Flexible Learning. Advance HE Publication: https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/essential-frameworks-enhancing-student-success-flexible-learning


See also the following LTE Bites Resources:

LTE Bites, No. 3: Inclusive Assessment: https://blogs.tees.ac.uk/lteonline/lte-bites/lte-bites-03/

LTE Bites, No. 5: Designing Formative Assessment: https://blogs.tees.ac.uk/lteonline/lte-bites/lte-bites-05/

Flexible Assessment in a Hybrid Delivery Model

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