Assessing students' work
Designing assessment tasks
Assessment tasks in higher education tend, with growing and noble exceptions, to be selected from a rather narrow list: essay, unseen examination, project, in art and design, an exhibition.
The range of possible assessment methods is huge. The range of possible assessment methods within the four types suggested above is still huge.
This "first word" is called 'designing assessment tasks' rather than 'selecting assessment tasks'. It suggests a systematic approach to designing the required assessment methods.
What will this "first word" try to do?
It won't encourage you to rush off and start dreaming up outlandish assessment tasks and methods which will cause annoyance and confusion in your colleagues and students.
It will help you to explore some of the rich range of approaches to assessment, and to design -- yes, and select -- methods which are appropriate to the module and the students.
The emphasis will be on two things: the educational appropriateness of the assessment task. And the efficiency with which the assessment task, achieves its various purposes.
Purposes of assessment tasks
Assessment tasks can have at least three purposes. They can
As long as the third of these purposes is being accomplished, it makes sense to design assessment tasks which will also accomplish the first two. Efficiency should always be a priority.
- Motivating students, to learn and to explore and practise and show what they have learned.
- They can lead directly to learning, through requiring students to make sense of what they already know, to link what they know to new knowledge, and to undertake activities which result in learning.
- Give feedback to students to guide their future learning, and determine the student's qualification, or progression to further study.
Criteria for choice of assessment task
How to plan or choose an assessment task? The following are the necessary criteria
It must be valid
That is, it should test attainment of the appropriate learning outcome. If the learning outcome requires that the student should be able to do something, then the only valid way to test whether or not they have attained that outcome is to ask them to do it.
It may sometimes be necessary to use a proxy task of some sort. If the learning outcome of an MBA is that the graduate should be able to lead a medium-sized commercial company into sustained profitability, a genuine assessment of this would be too expensive (or perhaps too profitable!), and in any case too time-consuming, to be feasible. But make the proxy task as close as possible to the real objective. In this example, there's a world of difference between being able to describe how to do something and being able to do it.
At Brookes, as well as course- or module-specific learning outcomes, students need to demonstrate general or transferable skills to contribute to their profile. These general skills can usually be demonstrated in the context of more specific, content-based skills and knowledge.
It must be varied, interesting and valued
Much of the motivation which assessment brings is extrinsic -- students do the assessment tasks to achieve the qualification. In general, intrinsic motivation leads to a higher level of performance than extrinsic. This may be because the connection between the activity or task and the reward is direct -- the task itself is inherently rewarding.
Motivating and rewarding assessment tasks are normally confined to the final project or dissertation. This need not be the case. After explaining to students the need for assessment to be valid and meet the other requirements suggested here, you can ask the students what kinds of assessment tasks they'd find rewarding to do. Who ever wanted their exam scripts back (except to check the adding up.)?
Variety of assessment tasks may look after itself. If the learning outcomes are varied, then the appropriate assessment tasks will also be varied. However, if the learning outcomes are similar in kind, then extra effort may be needed to achieve variety. The ideas described below about types and styles of assessment tasks should help.
It must be efficient
Efficiency is measured by comparing outputs with inputs.
- Your inputs
- The kind of assessment task you set will have a big effect on the effort you need to put in -- to setting the assessment task, perhaps to administering the assessment process, certainly to marking or grading the resultant student work. For an examination, a provocative quotation followed by the injunction 'discuss' takes a couple of minutes to set; as long as any other exam question to invigilate; and as long per 100 words as any other essay to assess. A computer-marked multiple choice test, by contrast, will take tens (or more) of hours to construct and debug, but very little time to administer and mark.
- Note how long it takes you to set assessment tasks, if appropriate to administer them, and certainly to mark or grade them. This is useful knowledge.
- Student inputs
- Most of what students put into their assessment is their time and effort. The module description will say how students should be spending their time.
- The main outcomes of assessment are marks or grades (summative assessment); feedback to the students (formative assessment); and the other factors described above, in various measures -- motivation (which of course may be positive or negative), useful learning activities, and learning itself. Since the primary purpose of higher education is student learning, assessment tasks which take a lot of student time are fine as long as they generate positive motivation, useful learning activities and learning.
Types of assessment task
This is a partial list. It shows some of the possibilities. I hope you will use the ideas and principles described in these first words to extend the list.
The essay has become an almost universal assessment task. Whatever precise definition the form may have had has been long lost.
Students are sometimes asked to 'write an essay on' something. They generally take this as an invitation simply to 'write about ...' something. On a bad day they may interpret it as an invitation to 'write as much as they can in the time of what they know about' something. With no clear purpose, no clear audience, little or no guidance on structure or style, students thus briefed sometimes produce less than satisfactory 'essays'.
There are many ways to clarify the task of writing an essay. As ever, the task should be derived from the learning outcomes.
- You could ask the students to describe, discuss, analyse, review, or evaluate an idea, theory, author or problem or situation.
- You could ask them to compare and contrast, make a comparative evaluation of, or make a reasoned choice between, two or more theories or models or schools of thought; you could give them data and ask them to select or develop a theory or model to account for or contain these data.
- You could become still more specific. You could ask them to take some particular role, or to argue for or against some particular position.
But even with these more specific essay tasks we are still inviting students to break two important rules of communication: These rules tell us to be clear, about the audience for a communication and about its purpose.
Hence, the report.
The real audience is of course always the person who will assess -- almost always the tutor. But the target audience for a report can be anyone:
'Appropriate' is the key. With whom may your graduate need to communicate professionally? The above is a list of possible audiences to whom they may address the work they produce during their studies.
- the editor of a journal, (for a paper or review or letter)
- the purchasing manager (for a sales letter or brochure for a product or service)
- the chair of a planning enquiry (for a planning application or objection)
- a gallery manager and the gallery-going public (for an exhibition catalogue)
- the ESRC (for a research proposal)
The real purpose is of course generally to earn a good mark. But, as with audience, so with purpose; the purpose can be very varied:
- to persuade a manager to take a particular course of action
- to secure funds for a particular objective
- to explain a complex technical idea in lay terms
- to clarify the basis of fact on which a decision must be made.
The specification of a report really comes to life when we specify together audience and purpose with house style and constraints on length and all the other factors which make report writing in the real world such a regulated pleasure.
Product or exhibition
Engineering and design students routinely produce objects (and associated reports) for assessment; artists and architects, exhibitions. There is no reason other than tradition why other subjects should not use similar methods. Appropriateness is all.
Journal, log or portfolio
There is debate, some of it serious and substantial, about the extent to which we should assess product or process. Where we are concerned with how something is done as well as what was finally produced, a critical or reflective journal or log can show process as well as product. The portfolio, an annotated collation of work undertaken over a period of time, can fill a similar function.
Graduates from vocational courses are employed because they can undertake real tasks and solve real problems in the real world. Real-world assessment tasks present problems. Where does the task specification come from? Who sets the standards for success? Who marks? How can we be sure of the comparability of different tasks done by different students? These problems are worth tackling because of the enormous motivation which real-world assessment tasks can bring and the enormous learning which can result.
Solo or collaborative tasks
The vast majority of assessed student work is produced by students working alone. Collaboration is usually seen as cheating. However, collaboration is a valuable academic and professional (and indeed human) skill.
There are various combinations. A group task can be written up by the group, or by each student, or by the group with a commentary by each student. The group product and report can be assessed and given a single mark, which can be shared equally, or allocated unequally on various bases. Ways to assure fair assessment of tasks undertaken collaboratively are described in first word 2.6.
Style of assessment task
Full or note-form?
Not every assessment task has to require the student to undertake a full-scale piece of writing. You can assess a great deal about approach, structure, factual knowledge, strategic sense or planning ability from an outline, sketch, or notes. And this will take you much less time.
From scratch, or based on prior student work?
Student work can be reused for different assessment purposes. For example they can be examined on a project, by asking them to describe the project process or to compare their results with some data provided in the examination.
Seen or not?
If students have prior sight of the assessment task, you can test their skills of library or field research as well as their skills of memory and reasoning.
If they take their notes into the examination, you can ask them to use data (and of course find data!) rather than remember it.
If you tell them a week or a month or indeed a term in advance from which published eight questions the three compulsory questions in the examination will be drawn, you will focus their studies onto whatever proportion of the syllabus the eight questions address.
Regulations and requirements
There will generally be requirements and regulations on the size and presentation of assessed student work. This year, the tasks you set will need to confirm to these. For next year, however, you may be able to negotiate changes. The underlying principle ,a quite reasonable one, is that students should know what form of assessment to expect before they join a module.
Assessment is unlikely to be the most enjoyable part of your work. But it is enormously important. This is not just because assessment plays a major -- the major? -- part in assuring the standard of competence of Brookes' graduates. Assessment also provides goals for students' learning, and provides feedback which guides their next efforts and learning.
Done well, assessment can be a strong and positive influence on studentsí learning.
Last modified: Wednesday, 27-Jun-12 10:24:19 BST