Why Flexible Assessment?

Assessment has a major impact on students and their learning whatever the delivery model (face-to-face, online, blended). Developing and deploying flexible and innovative assessment supports the need to be responsive to the requirements of a hybrid model of learning and teaching and the possibility of a combination of on-campus and online delivery from September 2020.

Prioritising flexible assessment arrangements in a hybrid model means shifting our focus beyond determining viable ‘alternative’ assessment arrangements in the short-term, on to more 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.

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. 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. Here 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.

There are multiple ways to be flexible with assessments while still challenging students, maintaining rigour, and continuing to provide the required structure and support. Three fundamental principles for thinking proactively about flexible assessment arrangements at course and module level are set out below. Each principle is presented alongside a range of key considerations for practice.


Flexible Assessment is Inclusive

Assessment processes need to provide an accessible, equitable and relevant learning experience for all students across a course of study.

Designing flexible assessment means keeping in mind individual differences between students for the purpose of accessibility, employing different combinations of assessment methods and support to meet the diversity of learning needs for different groups of students.

Key Considerations (Expand All/Collapse All)

Personalise Student Learning
Assessment needs to be adaptive enough to capture actual student learning that takes place in practice. Using a variety of assessment rather than relying on one or two signature (high-stakes) assessment methods (i.e. written exams) 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.
Diversify Your Approaches
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 (see LTE Bites, No. 3: Inclusive Assessment).
Allow Learner Choice
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 (see LTE Bites, No. 6: Embedding Flexible Assessment Strategies).
Support Learner Agency
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 each affording learners a degree of choice in how they proceed, as well as regular formative feedback opportunities to discuss progress.
Be Practical and Realistic
We must not automatically assume all students have the same access to technology. Where students face challenges engaging effectively online, there are strategies that can be introduced, such as reducing the size of tasks set, increasing the time in which tasks can be completed, and removing limiting conditions that are not necessary for making accurate judgements on student work.
Keep Things Accessible
It is a good idea to design flexible assessment arrangements with low bandwidth and data limits in mind. In some cases, students may be utilising lower-specification devices (slow, low power/resolution). It is important to ensure that flexible assessment arrangements will ‘work’ across a spectrum of device specifications whilst still meeting key learning outcomes.


Flexible Assessment is Learning-Focused

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.

Key Considerations (Expand All/Collapse All)

Take a Course-wide View
It is important that we give consideration to the balance of 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 supported and enabled to progressively master required skills, learn from feedback and demonstrate all intended learning outcomes.
Bias Authentic Tasks
Devising authentically rich and engaging assessment tasks is a key catalyst for nurturing productive student learning. Authentic assessments help to frame and contextualise learning and can also simulate ways of thinking and practising in professional life, for example, by engaging students in collaborative learning via active participation in peer review and shared tasks. Authentic tasks that include a sense of student voice/ownership – drawing on personal experience through reflective practices/choosing the focus topic of an assessment task – can boost academic integrity, as well as allowing you to spot similarities. Where high-stakes summative assessments such as written exams are retained, these can be developed to offer more authentic learning opportunities by offering them as ‘Take Home’ exams (see LTE Bites, No. 7: Designing Take Home Exams).
Prioritise Formative Opportunities
How we prepare students for assessment becomes increasingly important in blended 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 learning tools and technologies. Try selecting 2-4 tools that work for you and your students and building in regular time and space for focused practise and knowledge checks (see LTE Bites, No. 5: Designing Formative Assessment).
Focus on Improvement
It is important to design in regular formative opportunities to work with students to document their progress and learning in a module, generating evidence that can be used to adapt teaching approaches to meet the needs of students and feedback to students themselves on their own learning strategies moving forwards.
Put Feedback to Work
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 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 (see LTE Bites, No.2 Delivering Effective Assessment Feedback)
Make Space for Meaningful Dialogue
Connecting students through common activities and shared experiences using different  forums (i.e. discussion boards) and tools (i.e. shared blogs) provide flexible, timely and accessible opportunities for learners to interact online in relation to topics relevant to assessment tasks in ways that are often more accessible and personally meaningful to them than teacher-mediated discussion around similar topics.


Flexible Assessment is Transparent and Shared

Assessment and feedback processes are clearly articulated, relevant to context, and designed to enable meaningful 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 technologies/tools.

Key Considerations (Expand All/Collapse All)

Start with Clear Guidance
It is important that we make students aware, early on, of the technical and practical requirements of all assessment arrangements and tasks. Where assessment tasks include specific considerations such as defined start and finish times or restrictions on what can be submitted as assessed work (i.e. file sizes), be succinct and precise in your guidance to students. Students also need to be made aware of the importance of securely storing any work that they create in case of the need of future moderation and what steps they should take. This is particularly important for artefacts, but good practice for everything else too.
Clarify Learning Expectations
Devising opportunities for students to actively engage with criteria for learning 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 capacity to regulate their own work through their ability to judge, select and, apply appropriate approaches and techniques to assessment tasks (see LTE Bites, No. 4: Enhancing Student Assessment Literacy).
Make Use of Shared Activities
Offering moderated discussion forums, or other forms of peer-to-peer dialogue and learning can be helpful in promoting positive and enduring engagement and support in and through assessment processes. When facilitated asynchronously in online settings, such activities provide students with accessible means of posting work and providing and receiving feedback over a longer timeframe.
Be Pragmatic About Student Support
Being explicit early on about what tutor-led 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 support and the student role in this process for assessment tasks.
Promote Integrity and Secure Assessment
It is important we take steps to make sure students understand the importance of ethical working practices when completing assessment work across different modalities of learning. The University’s Assessment and Feedback Policy provides clear guidance for ensuring that assessment processes promote academic integrity. At a task level, reflections on practicums, vivas, and personalised and unique tasks are ways of hardening assessment against attempts to cheat.


To further support the implementation of your assessment preparations for September 2020, please also refer to Teesside University’s ‘Considerations and Resources for Supporting Different Assessment Methods in a Hybrid Model’ resource. Any changes to assessment and feedback at course or module level should also be made with reference to the University’s Assessment and Feedback Policy.