The 2016-18 Enhancement Theme of the National Forum focused on Assessment OF/FOR/AS Learning, helping to focus expertise and attention on assessment and feedback, an issue of real interest and importance to teaching and learning in Irish higher education. The enhancement theme involved gathering evidence, building capacity and sharing good practice across the higher education community. A national understanding of Assessment OF/FOR/AS Learning was developed, along with a set of principles to underpin assessment in Irish higher education and supporting resources.
Principles are a useful way of operationalising and sharing good practice in assessment. There are some common, more obvious, principles. For example, assessment should be valid, reliable and effective. The following principles also emerged from the Assessment Enhancement Theme, to give some focused guidance for assessment and feedback in Irish higher education.
We usually think of assessment as a lecturer (teacher) giving students a task so that the lecturer can judge the student’s work. This is a very common and important purpose of assessment (Assessment OF Learning), but not the only one. If assessment is a form of judgement, then giving students feedback and/or discussing their work so that they can judge their work based on this information is also an important purpose of assessment (Assessment FOR Learning).
However, another vital purpose of assessment is doing tasks that allow students to critically evaluate their own work, to be able to monitor themselves. Where students make changes and consider actions to their work, based on this activity, they are now ‘self-regulating’ their work. These self-monitoring and self-regulating activities can be termed Assessment AS Learning. Assessment AS Learning may need to be given more emphasis if we are to empower students in assessment.
Some ideas to develop students’ skills in evaluating their own work:
- Allow opportunities for students to self- and peer-review against assessment criteria
• Facilitate in-class or online activities, such as quizzes and discussions, where students can judge how well they are doing
• Give opportunities for students to compare their work with other exemplars, to be able to critically evaluate their work
• Support multiple opportunities to peer review other students’ work, giving students the opportunity to build skills in judging standards
• Develop a dialogue between staff, students and their peers based on their actionable and timely feedback
- Incrementally build these skills throughout the programme
Insight: Expanding our Understanding of Assessment and Feedback in Irish Higher Education
There are two aspects to this assessment and feedback principle. The first aspect is that the language around the purposes of assessment needs to be understandable for both staff and students, i.e. summative and formative assessment; assessment of, for and as learning. Secondly, at the point of time where students receive an assessment task, they need to be clear on the expectations around that specific assessment. The first is wider and applies to all assessment contexts, whereas the second aspect is specific to the assessment within a student’s module.
Assessment and feedback are central to the question of how we can enhance and transform teaching and learning in higher education. Underpinning this is a recognition of the benefits of adopting a programme-level approach to assessment and feedback. This approach is important because:
- it allows for a more effective and efficient use of resources in balancing the requirements of both high-stakes assessment that is reliable and valid assessment that measures complex learning (Knight, 2000);
- multiple unconnected modular assessments can put student assessment efforts in one module in competition with efforts in parallel modules, potentially resulting in a focus on the immediate rather than on the important;
- a programme view of assessment and feedback allows staff to plan for a diversity of assessments across the programme, both familiar and unfamiliar;
- coherent and integrative approaches to programme assessment have the potential to support students to develop complex understanding and challenge their learning by building on learning in previous and parallel modules;
- institutional and student reputations affected by plagiarism and cheating are best addressed through a multi-pronged approach at programme and institutional level (Bretag & Harper, 2016);
- the design and positioning of assessment and feedback within a programme is key to the integration of learning from different modules in ways that prepare students to apply their learning successfully within their lives and work.
Students have an important role to play in becoming more empowered in their own assessment and feedback processes. Fostering this partnership is an important assessment principle.
Whereas staff usually hold much of the ‘power’ in the allocation of grades in the assessment process, there is a growing international and national movement towards students becoming increasing involved in aspects of assessment and feedback (Bovill & Bulley, 2011). Evans (2016, p2) supports this when she highlights the importance of ‘how students come to co-own their programmes with lecturers and see themselves as active contributors to the assessment feedback process rather than seeing assessment as something that is done to them.’
Students have a particular role to play in the students-as-partners approach. For example, they can:
- input into institutional assessment protocols, when possible (e.g., programme assessment review, development of assessment appeals/code of practices/regulations)
- be responsible for their involvement, for example, by attending meetings, listening to their fellow students and communicating their issues and ideas
- be open to fair criticism on their assessment work and act on the feedback given
- plan their assessment workload
Staff have a particular role to play in the students-as-partners approach. For example, they can:
- facilitate students’ involvement in assessment-related institutional committees.
- partner with students to negotiate their assessment methods and/or timing, where possible.
- give students some choice of the methods used to assess them from a prescribed range (e.g., oral or poster presentation).
- give students some choice of questions on an examination paper/assignment.
There is a need for more diverse and at times more authentic assessment in Irish higher education. This is in response to the ever-changing cohort of students (including, for example, international students, mature students, part-time students, students with disabilities) and the need to assess a wider spectrum of graduate attributes for today’s society (CAST, 2011; DES, 2016). There is however an overemphasis on the examination as an assessment approach. In 2016, 61% of 487 modules in a profile of Irish assessment practices contained examinations (National Forum, 2016). The examination, in particular, is perceived as not relating to how learners will engage with assessment in the workplace or in their lives more broadly.
There are patterns of other common assessment methods in some fields of study. There is also a need for a diversity of feedback approaches and a need, in particular, to develop students’ involvement in feedback approaches (O’Neill, 2015). Supporting the development of more diversity of assessment and feedback approaches is important for the enhancement of teaching an learning.
Work experiences in a programme are linked with the idea of developing authentic knowledge and skills for life beyond higher education. In programmes with work placements, there is an need for appropriate work-based assessment of, for and as learning opportunities.
The following are suggestions and insights to help with the enactment of this principle in your programme:
- Explore the extent to which your programme’s outcomes are being assessed through an appropriate level of diversity.
- Introduce diversity sequentially throughout the programme to build students’ familiarity with different assessment methods.
- Authentic assessment is described as student-structured; highly applied to context; has strong connection to discipline; supports complex learning; encourages student engagement; supports motivation and learning.
- Authentic assessment can be judged based on the degree to which it: involves performing a task and is set in ‘real life’ (Mueller, 2006).
- Developing some choice in assessment approaches in a module can allow for diversity that gives some control to students (O’Neill, 2017).
The assessment load for students should be manageable. Too much assessment can lead, at times, to a lack of deeper engagement in the subject. In addition, in a modular system it can lead to poor class attendance as students prioritise their assessment time in one module over class time in another module. This has been described as an ‘assessment arms race’ (Harland et al, 2015). Judging overload is challenging as students’ experience of assessment load differs and different assessments have different weightings and different time expectations (Fielding, 2008; Galvez-Bravo, 2016; Jonkman et al 2006). Therefore, although number of assessment is not a very accurate measure it does give us some indicator of load.
Manageable for Staff
Similarly, the staff time allocated to assessment design and corrections should be manageable. Feedback approaches should be an efficient use of staff time.
Some strategies to manage student and staff assessment load:
- Explore the amount of assessment in a programme by doing a programme mapping exercise.
- Reduce assessment load or size, where appropriate.
- Develop more integrative assessments.
- Consider developing more slow time in the curriculum.
- Explore approaches to streamlining assessment.
- Prioritise feedback earlier in the module.
- Ask students to identify what feedback they would like to get and focus your time on this.
- Replace some staff feedback with in-class students self-monitoring activities.
- Consider the impact of small modules in your programme.
The Professional Development Framework for All Staff who Teach in Higher Education supports the idea of staff engaging in professional developed and scholarship in the area of assessment and feedback.
- Staff and students need to be supported to develop their assessment literacy.
- Professional development opportunities should support the development of individual staff and teams of staff to enhance assessment practice and policies.
- In line with the National Professional Development Framework, opportunities should include non-accredited professional development opportunities (including collaborative, unstructured and structured) and those which are accredited.
- Professional development should support ‘new learning’, ‘consolidating learning’, ‘mentoring’ and ‘leading’, related to Assessment OF, FOR and AS Learning.
Insight: Enabling Policies to Support Assessment OF/FOR/AS Learning in Irish Higher Education
Enabling policies should support the enhancement of assessment practices and should include the wider understanding of assessment of, for and as learning. There has been a range of international and national policies that support assessment enhancement including the development of students as partners:
- The European Standards and Guidelines for Quality Assurance in the European Higher Education Area (ESG) emphasise that institutions should ensure that programmes are delivered in a way that encourages students in an active role (European Commission, 2015).
- The HEA working group report, in particular, maintains that students as partners is key in moving beyond legal compliance to embed a culture of engagement throughout the institution (HEA, 2016). It also notes that institutions should embrace innovative learning techniques which incorporate the student as creator of their own learning.
- Whereas many policies highlight the importance of timely feedback to students (European Commission, 2015; QQI, 2016), there is also a recognition that students have a part to play in developing their own judgements (Assessment AS Learning): to encourage a sense of autonomy in the learner (QQI, 2016) and to empower students in the learning process, e.g. the principles of universal design for learning (HEA, 2015).
As highlighted by the data from the Irish Student Survey of Engagement (ISSE), students gain most when they invest time and energy in their learning and institutions and staff have key roles to play in providing an environment that both encourages and facilitates that engagement (ISSE, 2016).