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PGCert reflection on assessment

What is assessment?
Ashwin et al. (2015, p. 251) define assessment as involving “students undertaking tasks, the
outcomes of which enable judgements to be made about what they have learned”. They continues
that “almost any activity in which students do something and reveal what they have done can be
used for assessment purposes”. However, assessment can mean different things to different
stakeholders, which include according to Falchikov (2005, p. 4), students, parents, teachers,
administrators, and policymakers. Ashwin et al. (2015. p. 252) list twelve purposes for assessment
- all centered on the student’s perspective. In comparison, Brown et al. (1997, p. 11) show a similar
list but this time including aspects such as making the course or the institution “appear
‘respectable’ and creditworthy” to other institutions.

Assessment, constructive alignment, and deep learning

Perhaps one of the most important aspect of assessment is that, as Brown et al. (1997, p. 7) write,
it “defines what students regard as important, how they spend their time and how they come to see
themselves as students and then as graduates”. Or as Sambell et al. (2013, p. 33) state, the
assessment sends “a powerful backwash message to students about the skills and qualities that
are being valued” or “which they interpret to determine what is ‘really wanted’”. This interpretation,
they add, can be contradictory to the curriculum intended by the lecturer.

This is why Biggs & Tang (2011) emphasise that the curriculum design should use constructive
alignment so that the assessment tasks (ATs) are aligned with the learning outcomes (LOs). This
way the assessment sends the right signals to the students, or as they say “the backwash must …
be positive” (2011, p. 224). In a similar manner, Sambell et al. (2013) discuss Assessment for
Learning (AfL) where the focus is not on testing or evaluation, but instead “helping students to
learn and to succeed” (2013, p. 3).

Both Biggs & Tang (2011) and Sambell et al. (2013) emphasise that ATs should promote deep
learning instead of encouraging students to learn only superficially. In practical terms this can
mean avoiding certain assessment methods altogether, such as multiple choice questions or
exams (Biggs & Tang 2011, pp. 224-251). Brown et al. (1997) echo this adding that in addition to
choosing ATs that support deep learning also the attitude of the teacher or tutor needs to be
suitably open and supportive (pp. 29-39).

Formative and summative assessment

Assessment can provide feedback to learner, but if assessment is only done to evaluate the
students skill at the end of the course the benefit is questionable. As Gibbs (2006, p. 26) describes
a student commenting that late feedback is “water under the bridge” without having much of an
effect. As stated above, instead of deep learning students might just concentrate on getting good
grades. For reasons such as this, Sambell et al. (2013, p.33) advocate avoiding focusing too much
on summative assessment, as it can be detrimental to learning.

One solution to this is separating between formative assessment or “assessment for learning” and
summative assessment which marks the student grade formally (Ashwin et al. 2015, p. 253). Biggs
& Tang (2011, p. 64) write that formative feedback given during learning is “arguably the most
powerful enhancement to learning”. It allows the students a certain safety to trying out various
solutions (Sambell et al. 2013, p.33), even if these attempts are not always successful. According
to Biggs & Tang (2011, pp. 65-66) making errors can be highly important to learning. However, care
must be taken in how errors are being discussed by the tutor and in the presence of peers, so that
the feedback is constructive and encouraging.

Formative and summative feedback can be balanced in different ways, although one should be
careful that the summative does not accidentally “take-over”, as Sambell et al. (2013, p. 33) warn.
They continue that this can happen especially if formative and summative assessments are
combined within the same learning task. One way, demonstrated by Biggs & Tang (2011, pp.
196-197) is to have formative feedback throughout the course, “nurturing” the development of each
of the LOs and only have summative assessment at the end of the course.

Both types of assessment should result in feedback to the student. The feedback should not just
look back on what the student did wrong but to how they can improve their skills (Sambell et al.
2013, p.33). Feedback should also be timely, specific, expansive, and so on, as listed by Sambell
et al. (2013, p. 32 ff.) and Ashwin et al. (2015, pp. 264-268).

Versatile ways of assessment and feedback

Assessment and feedback does not always have to originate from the tutor. Sambell et al. (2013,
p. 121) write that the capacity for assessing and self-assessing is a crucial skill for graduates
entering the professional world. Therefore, instead of having the tutor assessing everything,
various other methods have been suggested. Among these Falchikov (2005, p. 117 ff.) lists peer
assessment, self-assessment, feedback provision, self- or peer testing, and negotiation or
collaboration with lecturers.

Sambell et al. (2013, p. 121) state that some students might spontaneously engage in self-
reflection, others benefit from being encouraged into doing it. In addition to helping students
develop skills for lifelong-learning, engaging students in assessment and feedback also changes
the power balance in the classroom. As Falchikov (2005, p. 127) writes, peer- and self-assessment
can empower the students. However, she also mentions that transferring too much power to
students can have undesirable outcomes (pp. 136-139). For example, in one case she brings up
the student peer-assessment was more lenient and thus less challenging than what the teacher
had intended. This can go against the constructive alignment, as this can mean that the student
assessment results in LOs that are different from the indented ones.

Ashwin, P. et al. (2015) Reflective Teaching in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury
Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2011/1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the student
does. 4th ed. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Brown, G. & Bull, J. & Pendlebury, M. (1997) Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education.
Abingdon: Routledge
Falchikov, N. (2005) Improving Assessment Through Student Involvement : Practical solutions for
aiding learning in higher and further education. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer
Gibbs, G. (2006) How assessment frames student learning, in Bryan, C. & Clegg, K. (Eds.)
Innovative Assessment in Higher Education, pp. 23-36 London: Routledge
Sambell, K. & McDowell, L. & Montgomery, C. (2013) Assessment for Learning in Higher
Education. Abingdon: Routledge