Purposes of assessment

It is easy to become so immersed in the job of teaching that we lose sight of the exact purpose of a particular element of assessment. There is then the possibility that we are not achieving that purpose, or that we overlook another form of assessment which might be more appropriate. We actually assess students for quite a range of different reasons - motivation, creating learning opportunities, to give feedback (to both students and staff), to grade, and as a quality assurance mechanism (both for internal and external systems). Because all too often we do not disentangle these functions of assessment, without having really thought it through assessments are frequently trying to do all these things, to varying degrees. In fact it is arguable that while it is desirable for assessments meeting the first three of these functions to be conducted as often as possible, the final two do not need to be done anywhere near so frequently; it is simply important that they are done somewhere. The implications of this are that while an essay question, where all the answers are double marked and the marks count towards the students' final grades, may fulfil all these functions, for all assessments to be this rigorous would be prohibitively expensive in staff time, while a peer-assessed seminar presentation, which does not count towards the students' final grades but is simply a course requirement, could fulfil the first three functions and may not even require a tutor to be present.

Formative v Summative assessment

This is the distinction between assessment which is mainly intended to help the student learn and assessment intended to identify how much has been learnt. Formative assessment is most useful part way through a course or module, and will involve giving the student feedback which they can use to improve their future performance. In practice, to varying degrees, most forms of assessment probably try to do both although the end of course exam where the only feedback received is a mark is almost totally summative. It is arguable that assessment in British higher education is too often focussed on the summative, and the accumulation of marks, coming at the end of courses, while students would benefit from more opportunities to build on their strengths and learn from their mistakes through the feedback from formative assessment activities staged throughout their course or module.

Assessment and course design

Assessment should be seen as an intrinsic part of the learning process rather than something which is just 'tacked on' at the end in order to get some marks. It should therefore be seen as a vital part of the initial design of the course or module. A model of course design can be described in the following three stages:

Stage 1: Decide on the intended learning outcomes. What should the students be able to do on completion of the course, and what underpinning knowledge and understanding will they need in order to do it, that they could not do when they started? (This obviously begs the questions what have they done before and what prior ability and knowledge can you expect?) These learning outcomes should each be described in terms of what the student will be able to do, using behavioural verbs, and described as specifically as possible. (Verbs like 'know' and 'understand' are not helpful because they are so general. Ask yourself, "What could the student do to show me that they know or understand?"). You may find it useful to group your outcomes under the following four headings: skills (disciplinary), skills (general), values and attitudes, underpinning knowledge and understanding.

Stage 2: Devise the assessment task/s. If you have written precise learning outcomes this should be easy because the assessment should be whether or not they can satisfactorily demonstrate achievement of the outcomes.

Stage 3: Devise the learning activities necessary (including formative assessment tasks) to enable the students to satisfactorily undertake the assessment task/s. These stages should be conducted iteratively, thereby informing each stage by the others and ensuring coherence