1.1 Background

It is difficult to overestimate the impact assessment has on learning. For the majority of students it determines (a) the topics on the syllabus they choose to study (b) how much time they spend studying them and (c) how they go about studying them. For example, do they simply try to memorise the course content or do they attempt to understand the material?  Unfortunately, tutors tend to spend most of their time thinking about module content and delivery i.e. how to run large and small group teaching. Assessment considerations tend to be something of an afterthought. One possible cause of this bias is that academics are not representative of their classes: they are much more intrinsically motivated in the subject than the majority of people they teach.

Given its importance, it is worrying that evidence from the National Student Survey suggests that students are less satisfied with assessment and feedback than any other aspect of their educational experience in higher education. For example, in 2018, 86 per cent of economics students agreed that ‘staff are good at explaining things’. This figure falls to 66 per cent for those who agreed that ‘I have received helpful comments on my work’.

One reason for this poor experience is clearly increasing student numbers. Many institutions have been able to exploit economies of scale in delivery by simply increasing class sizes i.e. by spreading fixed and ‘lumpy’ costs. Evidence from the NSS suggests that most universities have done this whilst maintaining student satisfaction with the quality of teaching. Assessment and feedback, however, has a higher proportion of variable costs. The resources required to grade and provide traditional written feedback tend to increase proportionally with the number of students on the module.

There is also less innovation in assessment than teaching. This is probably because of the greater perceived risk. Tutors are more likely to trial different methods of delivery as, if they are unproductive, it only affects one or a small number of classes. However, if new and different types of assessment prove ineffective or detrimental to student performance, the potential impact is much greater and longer lasting. 

1.2 The objectives and purpose of assessment

Assessment is complex and has a number of competing objectives. These include:

  1. Promoting/supporting learning: Assessment design should support and encourage effective and deep learning. This is often referred to as ‘assessment for learning’
  2. Measurement: Another purpose of assessment is to measure (a) what students have learnt on the module/course and (b) the level/depth of this understanding. It judges the extent to which students have achieved the learning outcomes for the module and programme. This is often referred to as ‘assessment of learning’.
  3. Providing feedback for tutors: Assessment performance helps tutors to evaluate the effectiveness of their own teaching. A relatively low distribution of final grades and/or poor feedback comments on student questionnaires should trigger some reflection by the module leader.
  4. Identifying students: Assessment performance can help to identify those students who are struggling to meet learning outcomes and may need extra support and guidance.

Module leaders need to keep these objectives in mind when thinking about assessment. They also need to take into account the manageability of the process. The two most important costs for a tutor are the time it takes to (a) write assessment questions, and (b) grade and provide feedback.

Section 2 of this handbook chapter focuses on assessment for learning in more detail while section 3 examines some implications of assessment design within a module i.e. the number/ structure of coursework and type of examination. Section 4 considers the implications of using different types of assessment question and, given their popularity, discusses the use of multiple-choice questions in some detail. It also includes cases studies that outline some alternative types of assessment. Section 5 concentrates on methods of feedback – the area of assessment where students express the least satisfaction with their experience in higher education.

Section 6 of the handbook focuses on two important issues when considering the measurement function of assessment – validity and reliability. The validity of an assessment is the extent to which it measures what it purports to measure, i.e. students’ understanding of module content. For example, the extent to which guesswork as opposed to knowledge can influence grades. The reliability of an assessment is the extent to which grading is consistent both between different assessors (inter-marker reliability) and by the same assessor (intra-marker reliability). The chapter provides some tips on how to improve both reliability and validity, but recognises the trade-offs that exist.