Developing Skills through Regular Assessment

Contact: Sue Hatt
University of the West of England
susan.hatt@uwe.ac.uk
Published February 2002

Introduction

Essays are frequently used for in-course assessment on undergraduate economics programmes. Essays are helpful for encouraging students to use theoretical concepts, present analysis, sustain an argument, and for developing their writing skills. They are thus a valuable type of formative assessment promoting both subject-specific and transferable skills. Problems can arise, however, if tutors rely too heavily on essays for in-course assessment. Those who are good essay writers are advantaged compared with learners who have other skills and prefer to demonstrate their knowledge in different ways. In addition, the standard essay of 1500 words is used perhaps once in each module and thus offers students only infrequent opportunities to learn from their mistakes. Its formative role in developing skills is therefore limited.

The task

To address these issues, other forms of assignment can be introduced. On a level 2 course on labour markets, I diversified the assessment to include a series of short pieces of written work to be submitted at regular intervals throughout the term. These brief answers were to be 350-400 words in length and were to provide a succinct answer to a specific question on a topic which had been discussed previously in a seminar. There were, in total, six seminar topics and related questions allowing students to choose four topics out of six or, alternatively, to submit all six and the best four marks counted.

Each piece of work was marked against explicit criteria made available to students in advance through the module handbook. The work had to be submitted within two weeks of the seminar discussion and was returned to students with feedback within ten days. This assignment replaced the standard essay in the first term and counted for 25 per cent of the final marks for the module. The submission of these short assignments had particular strengths in terms of developing students' subject-specific and transferable skills.

Continuous engagement with the subject

In the first place, these regular assignments encouraged students to engage continuously with the course material. They could not leave their reading until the end of term as they had to submit work on a regular basis. As economics is a cumulative subject which depends upon understanding basic principles before moving on to more complex concepts, the series of assessments helped students to maintain momentum in their studies. Students were also encouraged to participate in seminars as they knew they would have to write briefly on each topic. This had a positive impact on attendance and performance. Students came to seminars having done some reading, were more willing to participate in discussions and had an incentive to ask questions. Their knowledge and understanding developed on a regular basis and, as the course progressed, they were ready to build on these foundations and understand more complex concepts.

Regular feedback

The submission of a series of assignments enabled students to use the tutor's feedback to improve their future work. This is a significant advantage compared with the end-of-term essay when the student will often not have the opportunity to put the tutor's advice into practice. The formative role of the assignment is thus strengthened. Furthermore, the students were completing a series of assignments assessed against the same criteria encouraging them to engage with the assessment process and internalise the criteria. This helped them to become skilled at evaluating their own work prior to submission and, for many students, their marks improved as the term progressed.

Students were also able to see their marks accumulating and several students adopted a strategic approach to try and gain their target grade. In all cases, this acted as an incentive encouraging them to submit extra work or to put in additional effort one week to compensate for a low mark. The regular feedback helped students to feel confident in their ability to improve their performance and acted positively to encourage further effort.

Clear concise writing

Students also have to develop a new skill in order to write effective short answers. At the beginning of the module many students considered that it would be easier to write 350 words than the standard essay of 1500 words. They thought that the shorter length implied that they needed to know less. In fact, once they started to write, they found that they needed a thorough knowledge of the topics to enable them to select the key points. The word constraint made them focus their material to ensure that they included the relevant points and to structure their answer carefully in order to address the question set. Within this tight word limit, diverging from the point carried a heavy penalty in that there was insufficient space to include the appropriate material. In practice, they found it required more reflection and a deeper understanding to write 350 words than to write 1500. In addition, the length constraint required students to think carefully about the words they used and the grammatical structures they employed. Clumsy writing wasted words and made it difficult to complete the task effectively.

Conclusion

There are, inevitably, some drawbacks from setting this type of assignment. In the first place, lecturers have to mark the work regularly rather than setting aside a discrete block of time for marking once per term. Secondly, as students engage with the material and try to achieve their target grade, they are likely to make heavier demands on staff time. They will ask more questions, want additional clarification and guidance. This type of assignment could therefore become impractical with very large numbers of students. Finally, setting focused questions which are demanding and yet can be answered within the word limit is a new skill for lecturers to learn. This absorbs scarce resources, particularly in the first year.

On the other hand, if assessment is to develop a range of skills, students should be required to complete diverse tasks. The submission of a series of brief answers is only one form of diversity and it still focused upon written communication. It can, however, help to stimulate continuous engagement, to encourage a positive response to feedback and to reward those who can select appropriate material to answer a precise question. In my experience, it was worth the additional workload in the early stages to see the benefits in terms of improved student learning as the term progressed.