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2. Assessment for learning

One of the key functions of assessment is to facilitate, motivate and support learning – assessment for learning. Assessment can support learning in two important ways.

Firstly, there is the process of completing the work i.e. the research, reading, writing and revision. Therefore, both the design within a module (the number of coursework vs exam) and the type of question (fixed vs open response) play a key role in promoting and determining the level/depth of learning.

Secondly, there is the communication between marker and student about the quality of work both during and after its completion. This includes (a) information on strengths and weaknesses and (b) advice on how to improve performance in the future. For feedback to be effective, students must act upon it.

Section three of this chapter discusses some of the implications of assessment design within a module while section four discusses different styles of question and types of assessment. Section five discusses feedback in more detail.

2.1 The importance of assessment

It is difficult to overestimate how important coursework, tests and exams are in the learning process. Some widely cited studies from the 1970s concluded that assessment was by far the most important factor that determined students’ study time. Snyder (1971) found that students differentiated between the actual curriculum and the hidden curriculum i.e. what they needed to know to perform well in graded work. Miller and Parlett (1974) coined the term ‘cue seekers’ to describe those students who go to great lengths to find out the best way to answer a question or what topics they need to learn for the examination. More recently, Thomas, Hockings, Ottaway and Jones (2015) found that the number of non-contact study hours depends on the perceived assessment demand of the modules. Chevalier, Dolton and Lurrman (2017) carried out an interesting study on a large first year Principles of Economics module that uses on-line quizzes to promote continuous learning. The authors found that making the quizzes count towards the final grade increases the participation rate by 42 – 62 percentage points.

Evidence and experience indicates that the majority of students concentrate on tasks where they see the most direct and obvious impact of their actions on their marks/grades i.e. a clear line of sight. The tendency to ignore non-graded tasks may also increase with experience e.g. final year undergraduates focus more on graded work than students in the first year of the course.

Therefore, assessment is very important as it potentially has a bigger impact on learning than the actual teaching on a module. Gibbs and Simpson (2004) argue that assessments should encourage:

  • An appropriate amount of study time. The perceived demands of the assessment should incentivise students to exert enough effort so they can develop a deep understanding of the material.
  • A relatively even distribution of study time throughout the duration of the module. Students will develop a deeper understanding of the material if they work consistently as opposed to a few hours or days of intensive study just before a coursework deadline or examination. Unfortunately, a combination of much larger student numbers and resource constraints make it very difficult for tutors to mark regular problem sheets, essays or other types of homework.
  • Study time on high-quality learning activities. It is important that students do not perceive memorising and rote learning as effective ways to achieve high grades.