1 Introduction

The nature of assessment is central to everything that students ‘do’ – it governs how they study and learn.

1.1 Summary of the chapter

The primary aim of this chapter is to provide economics lecturers and tutors with practical suggestions on ways of improving the process of assessment. In particular, the emphasis is on assessment strategies that promote a wide range of transferable skills – in light of the increasing pressure on departments to develop skills that are more widely relevant to the workplace.

It is designed to be easily accessible – alternative approaches to assessment are illustrated primarily by examples of current practice. For those readers who do not have the time to read the chapter in full, the key ideas are summarised in Table 1. Throughout, considerable attention is given to the resource implications of introducing innovative strategies of assessment and, in particular, to the implications of innovations for staff time. Suggestions are made for how lecturers can introduce innovations incrementally, given the resources available.

A number of general principles emerge that should help lecturers consider how to approach and design assessment; these are summarised below.

The first, and probably most important step in designing assessment is to identify and evaluate learning objectives: that is, the key skills and knowledge that educators expect students to acquire from particular modules. This chapter provides, in section 1.2, a short exercise that should help this.

Identifying the learning objectives is not as straightforward as it may appear. As is well known, higher education serves an increasingly heterogeneous mix of students, and the teaching and learning goals of degree programmes must reflect this heterogeneity.

A key issue for lecturers in economics relates to the relative importance ascribed to ‘knowledge’ of economics (which is traditionally perceived as the ‘core’ learning objective) as opposed to transferable skills, such as the ability to communicate, negotiate, make effective use of information technology, etc. The latter, whilst more generic in nature, are seen as being increasingly relevant to economics graduates. Throughout this chapter, a mix of assessment modes that promote the widest range of desirable goals will be highlighted.

This said, it must be recognised that there are trade-offs regarding learning objectives, with particular assessment modes promoting certain learning goals but doing less well in developing other goals. Box 1 highlights the relative strengths and weaknesses of particular modes of assessment.1

The presence of such trade-offs necessitates that lecturers and, more importantly, departments and institutions are clear about their priorities (and that these are communicated to current and prospective students).

Throughout, emphasis is placed upon the importance of departments and institutions in taking a lead role in evaluating and designing assessment practice. This text is designed to be useful to individual lecturers and tutors and contains many ‘tips’ that should help improve practice.

However, the limited scope and range of individual modules and the heterogeneity of their goals suggest that optimal assessment practice must be co-ordinated at a departmental level, and this is a key message of the discussion.2 To put it another way, if departments are serious about widening the range of skills students acquire from their degree programmes, the range and type of modules provided must be designed with that in mind.

Top Tips 1 Thinking about how best to assess students

  • Identify the learning objectives.
    • What are students expected to gain from the module?
    • What are students expecting to gain from the module?
  • Evaluate which learning objectives matter more than others and tailor assessment procedures to meet these goals.
  • Consider implementing innovations initially on a small scale and develop over subsequent years in the light of experience gained and mistakes made.
  • Diversify assessment procedures.
    • This gives much greater opportunity for students to demonstrate their particular skills.
  • Best practice in assessment is co-ordinated at a departmental level.
    • Departments should have an assessment strategy.

The structure of this chapter is as follows:

  • Section 1.2 contains an exercise that readers should find useful. It is designed to make educators think carefully about what they are trying to achieve in their teaching, and whether the existing system of assessment best promotes those objectives. This section also presents a list of desirable teaching goals and considers to what extent these goals are supported by a traditional approach to assessment in economics. There is a brief discussion of the importance of increasing pressure on departments to promote a wider range of transferable skills.
  • In section 1.3, there is a review of the purpose of assessment, considering the two key forms – summative and formative.
  • Section 2 contains the core material. It takes a number of alternative assessment strategies and discusses each in turn, revealing their strengths and weaknesses and relevance in an economics context. The intention is that the style and content are practical, and, in most cases, ideas are illustrated with examples. The section builds on the excellent generic review of alternative assessment strategies by Brown et al. (1994).
  • In section 3, there is discussion of some important issues related to assessment –marking, feedback, plagiarism and large group assessment.
  • Section 4 contains a generic bibliography for further reading.

1.2 Evaluating learning objectives

‘…assessors will wish to judge the appropriateness and adequacy of provision (of assessment strategies) against the stated course aims and objectives’. (HEFCE Circular 3/93)

An exercise in identifying learning objectives and assessing ‘your’ assessment procedures

Take a sheet of paper and write down what students would be expected to obtain from the module. What are the anticipated learning outcomes, and what is the relative importance of each? Having done that, consider the extent to which existing modes of assessment promote the desired learning outcomes. Think carefully about what types of skill (and knowledge) are being testing in each assessment, and the areas of student activity that are promoted by its nature and design. On the sheet, place a tick (cross) next to those learning outcomes that it is believed are (not) adequately addressed. Finally, take a look at the list of learning outcomes in Table 1, and consider whether the methods of assessment used are consistent with these.

Table 1 Learning objectives

Skill area Do your assessment methods promote this skill?
Yes/No/A little/Other
Knowledge of economic principles  
Analytical skills
Problem solving under pressure, breadth and depth of understanding of complex problems
Written communication skills
Writing well-presented and structured reports and essays
Interpersonal skills
Ability to work with others, demonstrating management and leadership skills
IT skills
Skill in using basic computer packages – word processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoint; using the web to research information
Autonomy, self-reliance, self-motivation
Flexibility and resourcefulness
Ability to respond to unusual and unpredictable circumstances
Strategic thinking skills
Ability to determine own strategy and direction, self-knowledge and self-monitoring of effectiveness
Research skills
Finding out, using libraries, finding sources of information
Organisation skills
Managing time and deadlines – organising material

Hopefully, this has been a useful exercise.3 It gives instructors an opportunity to reflect on learning methods in terms of goals and effectiveness. The purpose is to show any discrepancies between what is and should be achieved in learning delivery, and the kinds of activity and learning process promoted by the assessment procedures employed. No doubt, individual lists of goals look very different from Table 2, and this should raise some interesting questions. The same table emphasises various transferable skills and this point is taken up later in section 1.

Evaluating a traditional approach to assessment

Brown and Glasner (1999) have found that 90 per cent of a typical British degree depends upon unseen time-constrained written examinations, and tutor-marked essays and reports. The typical approach to assessment in economics may well look a little like this.

Students are expected to prepare answers to a series of ‘shortish’ conceptual questions that are subsequently discussed in tutorials in an informal way under the leadership of the tutor, with the implicit expectation that the tutor provides model answers.4 Midway through the module, students submit an essay from a list of broad questions. The majority of the final mark comes from an unseen examination, usually taken at the end of the module. Students are normally asked to answer three or four questions of a fairly broad nature but closely related to the material of the lecture course and the principal textbook. Typically, answers are in essay form, each of three to four pages in length.

How successful is this approach in promoting learning outcomes?

The traditional approach promotes a number of learning outcomes. The unseen examination requires students to respond to pressure and time constraints. They develop strategic capacity in respect of the topics studied and the questions answered, and selectivity in the material presented.

In other respects, the traditional approach fares less well. Box 1 lists the broad learning goals that are not adequately promoted by this means of assessment – readers may well disagree.

The list is long and reflects a growing and widespread criticism of assessment methods in HE. A broad criticism of assessment practice is that it is too narrow in its goals. Other authors argue that current assessment practice, rather than promoting learning, is in fact injurious to it (see, for example, Boud, 1992; Atkins et al., 1993; Erwin and Knight, 1995).

A core objective of HE is the development of analytical or ‘thinking’ skills. It is expected that graduates should be able to deal with complex problems in a logical manner, and be able to communicate and present solutions in a variety of ways. However, there is increasing and disturbing evidence that students do not engage in the deep learning process that promotes these kinds of skill, engaging in surface learning and regurgitation of memorised material in a disorderly way (Entwistle, 1981; Gibbs, 1992; Boud, 1992).

Whilst students are encouraged to be self-reliant and self-motivating, assessments rely primarily on appreciation of core material available in key textbooks. However, there are inadequate incentives for initiative in identifying alternative sources of material and developing research-type skills. The more entrepreneurial skills, whilst very difficult to promote, are not addressed. These require students to have much greater control over goals than is usually the case, and a greater flexibility in the method of assessment.

The final area of concern relates to students’ motivation (although this is not a learning outcome). It is clear that the motivation of many students is very narrowly defined in terms of exam performance, whilst there is often little evidence of an appreciation or interest in what they are learning or why they are learning it. Educators must consider the relationship between assessment, the issue of motivation and interest in learning. Any approach that emphasises a wider range of skills and actively engages students in different kinds of activity is likely to generate greater motivation.

Box 1 The consistency of the traditional approach to assessment and identified learning goals

Strengths of a traditional approach to assessment

  • Strategic thinking.
  • Responding to pressure and time constraints.
  • Encouraging a broad knowledge base.

Weaknesses of a traditional approach to assessment

  • Thinking skills – identifying and solving complex problems.
  • Presentation and oral skills – presenting complex problems and solutions orally in a comprehensible way, confidence building, use of PowerPoint, responding to unknown questions orally.
  • Interpersonal skills – communicating with colleagues, negotiating, developing leadership skills and managing interpersonal problems.
  • Research skills – finding unknown sources of information, research on the web and using libraries.
  • Entrepreneurial skills – identifying personal goals and the means to achieve them.
  • IT – basic skills, such as familiarity with core software and use of the internet.
  • Self-motivation and assessment – understanding personal motivation and objectives, and assessing progress achieved.

Transferable skills and government policy

Underlying the debate on the effectiveness of assessment strategies is a more fundamental debate on the purpose of HE. Brown et al. (1994) make the following observation:

There is increasing acceptance that it [assessment] is at least in part to do with preparation for later life and work beyond academia. This recognition has brought with it a gathering momentum for a shift in emphasis from the acquisition of knowledge to the acquisition of skills, from product to process, from grading to competence.

This shift in emphasis towards transferable skills is strongly endorsed by the government and HEFCE. It is motivated in part by surveys of employer dissatisfaction with graduates’ skills, particularly regarding negotiation, decision making and leadership.

Pressure on instructors to diversify learning aims and assessment procedures also comes from students themselves in a competitive labour market. The increasing number of students entering HE implies a greater heterogeneity of backgrounds, student objectives and modes of participation (official and unofficial). To demonstrate students’ abilities, and develop their interests, educators are now obliged to offer richer and increasingly diverse modules.

These issues are relevant to the teaching and learning of economics. It is clear that the large majority of students taking economics modules do not go on to become practising economists – future careers are in finance-related professions and, in particular, accountancy. Arguably, these students have less demand for knowledge of economics and its methodology than for work-related skills.

The issues here raise radical questions about the respective roles of secondary and tertiary education and the structure of educational institutions, departments and degree programmes. What is clear, however, is that instructors must diversify their assessment procedures, so this chapter is designed to aid instructors with some ideas and tips on ways to diversify assessment practice.

Readers who are only interested in practical ideas may wish to skip section 1.3 and go directly to the main content (section 2).

1.3 The purpose of assessment - a generic review

One of the primary purposes of assessment is to be summative. In its summative role, the purpose of assessment is to judge the quality and characteristics of the student and summarise these in a clear and widely acceptable format. Traditionally, the principal mechanism for summative assessment is the end-of-module examination. Summative assessment is assumed to help employers by providing ‘costless’ information on the productive potential of job applicants. It is also a mechanism for selecting students for post-compulsory education, and may be a factor in the reputation and financial security of institutions in higher education. Students care most about the results of summative assessment, as these impact on their employability and prospective earnings. Box 2 summarises the role and purpose of summative assessment.5

Box 2 Purpose of summative assessment

  • To pass or fail a student.
  • To grade or rank a student.
  • To allow progress to further study.
  • To assure suitability for work.
  • To predict success in future study and work.
  • To signal employability and selection for employment.

Assessment also has a formative function (Box 3). In this role, assessment is intimately linked with students’ learning processes, helping to guide them in their studies, motivating them, providing feedback on areas of learning requiring further work, and generally promoting the desired learning outcome. Whilst most assessment is both summative and formative, it is argued that the summative function increasingly predominates in a way that adversely affects student learning.

Box 3 Purpose of formative assessment

  • To provide feedback to students.
  • To motivate students.
  • To diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • To help students to develop self-awareness.

Assessment also contributes to evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of modules and improving the quality of learning delivery (Box 4).

Box 4 Purpose of assessment with respect to quality assurance

  • To provide feedback to lecturers on student learning.
  • To evaluate a module’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • To improve teaching.
  • To ensure the module is creditworthy.
  • To monitor standards over time.