Resolving assessment issues in higher education: learning from innovation in programme focused assessment

  • Ruth Whitfield, Centre for Educational Development, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK

    P Hartley Centre for Educational Development, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK

    Sean Walton, Centre for Educational Development, University of Bradford, Bradford, UK

    Chris Rust, Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK

    Margaret Price, ASKe CETL, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, UK

    Elizabeth McDowell, AfL CETL, Northumbria University, Newcastle, UK

    Sue Burkill, Education Enhancement, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    S Smith, Business School, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    Concerns and dissatisfaction can be found running through the research and development literature on learning and assessment in Higher Education, through the student comments in the National Student Survey, and through conversations on assessment with most academic tutors. The Programme Assessment Strategies (PASS) project was set up to directly confront issues which concern every course/programme leader in Higher Education: how to design and deliver an effective, efficient and sustainable assessment strategy which ensures that the main course/programme outcomes are satisfied.

    The project started from a consideration of the main assessment problems now experienced in Higher Education - using the outcomes of both research studies and applied interventions (e.g. the work of the Assessment for Learning (AfL) and Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe) Centres for Excellence in Teachiing and Learning (CETLs) who are both partners in the project). From both theoretical and practical perspectives, the PASS project has been able to demonstrate that principles and techniques of programme focused assessment can both improve the quality of the student learning experience and resolve many of these problems. Programme focused assessment offers assessment that is specifically designed to address major programme outcomes rather than very specific or isolated components of the course. It follows then that it is integrative in nature, bringing together understandings of subject and skills in ways which represent key programme aims. As a result, the assessment is likely to be more authentic and meaningful to students, staff and external stakeholders.

    The advantages of and main barriers to programme focused assessment will be illustrated by major case studies which PASS has investigated (raising along the way relevant issues of methodology and the nature/value of specific evidence). These cases include a range of different approaches and show how programme focused assessment can address major criticisms of current HE practice. For example, Margaret Price et al (2011) bemoans the lack of “pedagogic, and particularly assessment, literacy" possessed by both academic staff and students. Comparing approaches to assessment, they suggest “an incremental approach focused at module/unit level provides an assessment experience that appears ready disaggregated to students, whereas a program/course focus enables an overview of assessment tasks and progression." That overview, coupled with the level of student understanding is a key component of effective programme focused assessment.

    Following an initial consideration of the problems/issues in current assessment practice, analysis of examples and practical case studies will enable delegates to explore and discuss:

    • What are the key features of programme focused assessment?
    • What are the main forms of implementation?
    • What is its impact on staff behaviour and student engagement?
    • How does programme focused assessment change the ‘student journey’ through a programme of study?
    • What are the practical and institutional implications of adopting programme focused assessment?
    • What are the main enablers and barriers regarding effective programme focused assessment?


    • Price, M., Carroll, J., O'Donovan, B. and Rust, C. (2011) ''If I was going there I wouldn't start from here: a critical commentary on current assessment practices', Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36 (4), 479-492.
    • Case studies from the PASS project