The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

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.