Berry O'Donovan

  • Involving students in assessment

    Convenor: Berry O'Donovan, Oxford Brookes University


    Themes: assessment


    What constitutes student involvement in assessment? If students undertake an assessment task are they involved in assessment? The papers presented in this symposium take as their premise that involving students in assessment goes far beyond their completion of assessed tasks. The different approaches presented here are inspired by the common aims of developing students as self-directed learners, empowering them as full participants in assessment at university and fostering their capacities as lifelong learners and professionals beyond university.

    Assessment processes and standards are often concealed by barriers such as undeclared criteria and opaque assessment tasks, which prevent students from becoming proficient self or peer assessors. These papers propose that these barriers be removed and students be given access to communal resources such as a common language of assessment, shared understanding of marking criteria and exemplar assignments. Overemphasizing the judgemental role of assessment can obscure its developmental role in the learning process. We focus on assessmentfor learning where assessment is experienced as a positive feature of the learning environment and ultimately becomes an integral feature of autonomous learning within and beyond university.

    The three papers, from different perspectives, explore ways in which students might access and use communal resources to take a more active role in the assessment process and the learning and assessment community. Two are drawn from the work of Centres for Excellence in Teaching & Learning funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England: CETL in Assessment for Learning (Northumbria University and the ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) CETL (Oxford Brookes University).

    Paper 1: Involving students in assessment: developing understanding of assessment standards within a community of assessment practice

    Margaret Price, Berry O'Donovan and Chris Rust, Oxford Brookes University

    This paper argues that there must be a move beyond a focus on assessment technique to a more holistic perspective of assessment as central to learning. Assessment drives learning and assessment standards set expectations of range of stakeholders (students, staff, employers, pre HE educators). Assessment standards guide and mould student learning both in terms of what they must do and how well they must do it, yet students often claim to be unsure about expectations. It is proposed that by drawing students into an active community of assessment practice their understanding and expectations will be grow through their involvement in that community

    Prior research suggests that students need to actively engage in the learning process to construct new knowledge. Whilst there appear to be many flavours to this

    constructivist approach to learning (Terhart, 2003), it is commonly acknowledged that learning is enhanced if understood as an active and collaborative process situated in authentic and complex problem domains. This perspective on learning has arguably gained ascendancy over the traditional delivery model of teaching, particularly in the context of learning disciplinary content. However, we seem reluctant to take this constructivist approach to learning when seeking to develop student understanding of assessment processes and standards. And yet an important aspect of the learning process is the attainment of a shared understanding of assessment standards, criteria and feedback. Such understanding is arguably constructed and, disseminated through members’ active participation in a learning community. ‘Knowing involves… participation in social communities’ (Wenger 1998 p. 10 cited in Northedge 2003).

    The paper uses a matrix framework to map the approaches to developing student understanding of assessment standards and processes and describes the evolution of approaches using examples from an on-going research project being undertaken at Oxford Brookes University Business School. Initiatives have aimed at inviting large numbers of students to take a greater role in our academic community through a series of activities based on a social constructivist approach to assessment centred around involving students in marking practice, peer review and feedback. These include the explicit definition and discussion of assessment criteria (Price & Rust 1999; O’Donovan et al, 2001); the use of socialisation processes involving student engagement with exemplar assignments and marking criteria (Rust et al, 2003); student engagement with feedback (Rust et al, 2005). The award of funding for a CETL (Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning) will allow development of this work and an opportunity to build an active community focused on assessment. The paper will discuss the means by which such an ‘inclusive’ community can be built and its anticipated effects.


    • Northedge, A (2003) ‘Rethinking teaching in the context of diversity’ Teaching in Higher Education Vol 8, Iss 1, pp. 17-32
    • O’Donovan B, Price M, and Rust C (2001) ‘The student experience of the introduction of a common criteria assessment grid across an academic department’, Innovations in Education and Training International, Vol 38, Iss 1, pp 74-85
    • Price, M and Rust, C (1999), The experience of introducing a common criteria assessment grid across an academic department, Quality in Higher Education, Vol 5, Iss 2 pp 133-144.
    • Rust, C, Price, M and O’Donovan, B (2003) Improving students’ learning by developing their understanding of assessment criteria and processes Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol 28, Iss 2, pp 147-164
    • Rust, C, O’Donovan, B and Price, M (2005) ‘A social constructivist assessment process model: how the research literature shows us this should be best practice’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education Vol 30 (3)
    • Terhart, E (2003) ‘Constructivism and teaching: a new paradigm in general didactics?’Journal ofCurriculum Studies, Vol 35, Iss 1, pp. 25-44

    Paper 2: Re-thinking technology-supported assessment practices in relation to the development of self-regulated learning

    David Nicol, Strathclyde University

    This paper examines the landscape of technology-supported assessment practices in the light of recent conceptualisations of formative assessment and feedback (see Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2005). It is assumed that the purpose of assessment in higher education is to develop learner self-regulation and that feedback (tutor, peer and self-generated) can help support this development. Self-regulated learning (SRL) refers to the active control by students of aspects of their own learning (Zimmerman & Schunk, 2001). The paper takes a broad approach to assessment – going beyond a simple analysis of automated marking and feedback using online objective tests. It explores how e-tools might support the development of self-regulation across a variety of assessment contexts wherein face-to-face and online learning are integrated. Examples include the assessment of written work (essays, reports), online discussions, problem-solving exercises and personal development planning. It is argued that e-tools are effective when they are allied to assessment approaches that enhance the students’ ability to generate internal feedback against standards and to self-regulate thinking (e.g. learning strategies) and behavioural outputs.


    • Nicol, DJ, and Macfarlane-Dick, D (2005), Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education.[accepted for publication]
    • Zimmerman, BJ and Schunk, DH (2001) Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: theoretical perspectives (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, New Jersey).

    Paper 3: Assessment for learning: developing autonomous learners in Childhood Studies

    Liz McDowell and Kay Sambell, Northumbria University

    Conceptualisations of assessment have expanded from assessment of learning, conventionally viewed as the measurement or checking of outcomes attained. There is now a diversity of models and practices of assessment for learning (Black, 2003; Gibbs & Simpson, n.d.). The model developed at Northumbria University places the development of autonomous learning at the heart of assessment for learning practice. We aim for sustainable assessment (Boud, 2000) targeted on both short-term (in course) and long-term goals. The primary aim is to develop students’ abilities to direct their own learning, evaluate their own progress and attainments and support the learning of others, all of this as a foundation for lifelong learning, professional practice and critical autonomy (Knight & Yorke, 2003). We have identified six key conditions for effective assessment for learning. This work is being taken forward as part of a Centre for Excellence in Assessment for Learning.

    In this paper we offer case studies of assessment for learning. The case studies presented are from work in Childhood Studies at undergraduate level. This is particularly interesting as an interdisciplinary area of study where assessment for learning approaches are used to assist students to locate themselves within the range of perspectives and practices they encounter. New work is in progress as part of a national FDTL project (MEDAL). A completed case study centres on a literature-based module on children’s books. The assessment for learning approach is centred on a series of group-based design projects, for example, designing a children’s library based on differing perspectives on ‘the child’ which lead directly to an individual summative assessment task. This example was designed with three of the conditions for effective assessment for learning in mind. It aimed to: emphasise complexity in thinking rather than simply rehearsal of declarative knowledge; give students opportunities to practise and develop, with others, the kinds of understanding and skills that they need to demonstrate in summative assessment; and provide a learning environment which is rich in informal feedback from tutors, professionals and peers. A range of perspectives on the experience of the module have been gathered using an interpretive research design (Sambell, McDowell & Brown, 1997) to illuminate intended and unintended effects and explore the territory between principles and practice.

    The presentation of the case studies in the symposium is intended to assist participants to link principles and aims of assessment for learning which are widely espoused, with well-grounded case studies of practice. This will assist in promoting both improved practice and enhanced conceptual understandings.


    • Black, P et al (2003) Assessment for learning: putting it into practice. Maidenhead, Open University Press
    • Boud, D (2000) Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning societyStudies in Continuing Education, 2292) pp 151-167
    • Gibbs, G and Simpson, C (nd) Does your assessment support your students’ learning?Formative Assessment in Science teaching Project, (accessed 20/1/05)
    • Knight, P and Yorke, M (2003) Assessment, learning and employability. Maidenhead, Open University Press
    • MEDAL: Making A Difference: educational development for academic literacy. FDTL (Fund for Development in Teaching & Learning) project, 2005-2007. (Lead; Northumbria University; Partners: Durham University; Roehampton University, York St John College, York University)
    • Sambell, K, NcDowell, L and Brown, S (1997) “But is it fair?” an exploratory study of student perceptions of the consequential validity of assessment Studies in Educational Evaluation 23 (4), 1997 pp 349-371