Types of assessment

As has been argued already, the type of assessment chosen should be related to learning outcomes and governed by decisions about its purpose, validity and relevance. In addition, as it is probably true to say that every assessment method will place some students at a disadvantage to some extent, a range of types of assessment is desirable to hopefully reduce the element of disadvantage suffered by any particular student. Types of assessment to choose from include:

Essay

An answer to a question in the form of continuous, connected prose. The object of the essay should be to test the ability to discuss, evaluate, analyse, summarise and criticise. Two dangers with essays are that they are easy to plagiarise, and that undue weight is often given to factors such as style, handwriting and grammar.

Assignment

A learning task undertaken by the student allowing them to cover a fixed section of the curriculum predominantly through independent study. Different methods of presenting the results can be used dependent on the nature of the task - a report (oral or written), a newspaper or magazine article, a taped 'radio programme, a video, a poster, a research bid, a book review, a contribution to a debate, etc. It is vital to be clear in the assessment criteria how important the medium is compared with the message, so if it is a video how important is the quality of the lighting, the style of the editing, etc. compared with the content that is covered. If aspects of the medium are important then time must be given in the course for these to be taught.

Individual project

An extended investigation carried out by an individual student into a topic agreed on by student and assessor. In many ways similar to an assignment, the main difference is the onus on the student to choose the particular focus and/or medium of presentation. As with any assessment where the product will vary significantly from student to student it is vital that the criteria are sufficiently well written to be fair when applied to different undertakings and results.

Group project or assignment

Where either an assignment or project is undertaken collectively by groups of students working collaboratively. This has the pragmatic advantage of potentially reducing the tutor's assessment workload and the educational advantage of helping to develop the students' teamworking skills. There are also some forms of product such as collaborative performance that can by definition only be achieved in a group. The major assessment problem is how to identify each individual's role and contribution and to reward it fairly. Solutions (none of which is problem free) tend to include combinations of: an individual component which can be individually assessed, tutor observation, and involving the students in some self and/or peer assessment as the ones in the best position to judge.

Dissertation

Written presentation of results of an investigation or piece of research, normally taking the form of an extended essay being less rigorous in its style and layout requirements than a thesis. The content reflects the findings of the investigation. This has similar assessment problems to an individual project.

Examination

This can take a variety of different forms. The most common factors are that it is done under comparatively short, timed conditions and usually under observed conditions which ensures it is the student's own work (although there are examples of exams where students take the questions away). Major criticisms are that because of the comparatively short time allowed answers may inevitably be superficial and/or not all the learning outcomes may be assessed. They may also encourage the rote learning of potential model answers. This can be avoided if the focus of the tasks set is on the application of what has been learnt, presenting the student with a previously unseen context or scenario or set of data which they have to 'do' something with. Some of the most common variations of exams are:

  • 'seen' where the questions to be answered are given at a pre-specified date beforehand. The intention is to reduce the need for 'question-spotting', to reduce the anxiety, and to increase the emphasis on learning.
  • 'open-book' during the exam students have access to specified texts and/or their notes. the intention is to reduce the emphasis on memorising facts, to reduce anxiety and allows more demanding questions to be set.
  • 'unseen' arguably makes the student revise the whole syllabus because anything may appear on the paper (although in practice may do the opposite as the student may 'question-spot' and gamble on certain topics coming up.
  • 'MCQ' objective tests asking multiple choice questions (MCQ) where the student simply selects from a bank of potential answers. Easy to mark (can be done by a machine or even administered on a computer) and can ensure students revise the complete syllabus but arguably difficult, if not impossible, to assess higher order skills. Writing good questions is however very difficult. If you can find an appropriate US textbook there will probably be a bank of questions which come with it on disk.

Viva

Possibly used in conjunction with any of the above methods, this involves the student having to answer questions orally. In a comparatively short space of time it is possible to ascertain both what the student knows and the depth of this understanding (and possibly the amount they contributed to a group project and the nature of that contribution).

Performance

In many cases, when it comes to practical outcomes, the only sensible way of really assessing whether an outcome has been learnt is through watching the student actually perform it - whether 'it' is literally a performance, as in the performing arts, or a nursing student taking a patient's bloodpressure. Because in such cases the assessed "product" is transient, for purposes of moderation and external validation you may need to find ways of recording the event (audio or video). Such recordings can also play a vital role in giving the student feedback.

Self and peer assessment

There is strong evidence that involving students in the assessment process can have very definite educational benefits. Not so much a type of assessment like those already listed, this is something which can be done in conjunction with any type of assessment. The important aspect is that it involves the student in trying to apply the assessment criteria for themselves. This might include: a marking exercise on 'fictitious' or previous years' student work; the completion of a self-assessment sheet to be handed in with their work; 'marking' a peer's work and giving them feedback (which they can then possibly redraft before submission to the tutor); or really marking other students' work (i.e. allocating marks which actually count in some way) - a seminar presentation, for example, or a written product using a model answer. The evidence is that through trying to apply criteria, or mark using a model answer, the student gains much greater insight in to what is actually being required and subsequently their own work improves in the light of this. An additional benefit is that it may enable the students to be set more learning activities on which they will receive feedback which otherwise would not be