Teaching & Learning


Planning effective assessment

Assessment expert, Professor Mary Richardson, shares guidance for planning effective student assessment.

10 October 2022

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Change is possible, if challenging 

Educators in higher education (HE) have more control and autonomy in assessment than those in any other phase of education. Universities regulate assessment in order to ensure standards both nationally and internationally. Within this framework it is helpful for staff to reflect on the robustness of their assessment practice and on whether their chosen methods of assessment are supporting and capturing the desired learning and development to best effect.

Making changes to and varying assessment methods takes time and effort – for staff and students. The time taken for making amendments and a lack of confidence in selecting and deploying new methods are sometimes seen as barriers for staff. For students, each new method demands they pay attention to potentially varied forms of making their knowledge and skills visible. There is also a risk that variation gets in the way of cross-department/disciplinary working. These are all issues for institutions and staff to remain mindful of in reviewing assessment practices and related provisions for staff development.

Students focus on grades

Until recently, universities in England generally used examinations – ‘finals’ – as their definitive mode of assessment. Students now receive grades/marks for assessments related to the modules/courses during their undergraduate or taught Masters studies. This seems to have exacerbated among many students a fixation on grades that runs throughout the course, and a common perception among students that summative assessments are ‘better’ or more important. One task that staff face is helping students to understand that one type of assessment is not ‘better’, rather it is all dependent upon context as to which assessment is the most appropriate and relevant to a given situation. This discussion needs to be highlighted on a regular basis so that students (and staff) are not attracted to making blanket (and often invalid) statements in relation to assessment. 

The importance of feedback 

There is considerable research both promoting formative assessment in HE and outlining relevant tools and techniques. There is also a range of terminology, such as ‘assessment as learning’ and ‘assessment for learning’, that has been associated with formative assessment. The use of the term ‘formative assessment’ embraces both teaching and learning (whereas assessment for learning is more focused on the design of ways to gain evidence that can subsequently be used to improve student learning). ‘When students receive feedback from teachers they must engage in self-assessment if they are to use that feedback to improve academic performance: that is they must decode the feedback message, internalise it and use it to make judgements about and modify their own work’ (Nicol, 2009: 339.) Feedback also offers some transparency in the process of awarding grades and marks when it includes justifications of the outcomes awarded. Use of rubrics helps students see the extent to which different criteria have been satisfied and those areas that require further improvements. 

Transparency and trust

Staff should not assume that students will know what it is that they are doing when they are preparing for assessments – especially when more innovative methods of assessment are being used. Good practice when working with students includes giving them appropriate information about assessments. 

We can only assure students of a socially just and equitable environment if we treat them appropriately. As with all arguments on justice, treating students the same way is not necessarily treating them equitably. Therefore, how we approach assessment and the way that we educate for assessment literacy is very important not simply for adhering to regulatory processes, but also to invoke trust in our work. Assessment is recognized as a valid means to shape students’ learning, therefore we, as responsible educators, should understand how assessment also shapes our students and ourselves. 

Reference: Nicol, D. (2009) ‘Assessment for learner self-regulation: Enhancing achievement in the first year using learning technologies’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 43(3), 335-352.

Top tip

Choose one focus for review and reflection in your assessment practice – you can’t change it all at once. Good feedback trumps all other foci in assessment: this is where learning happens both for you and your students. 

Related resources 

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