Earlier in 2021 I talked about the importance of needing to learn from the pandemic, and not simply go back to all the old ways of doing things. Assessment is one of the main areas where change has taken place during this time, since face-to-face exams were largely cancelled and new methods were employed. This blog piece reflects on the idea of assessment change at an institutional level, and makes some practical suggestions on how meaningful change can be brought about. It reflects a work in progress and not a prescription. 

It is worth reminding ourselves why assessment matters and why change may be useful. Assessment drives learning (McDowell et al., 2009), and it “creates learning activity and orients all aspects of learning behaviour” (Gibbs, 2019, p.22). Essentially assessment sets the direction for teaching and learning. Assessment can be motivating, and done badly can be a source of great frustration and stress. Of course, assessment is a key mechanism for generating feedback, which we have long known to be impactful for learning. Despite its power, we know that assessment is a challenging activity. It is associated with workload pressures, and when designed in a certain way assessment can promote surface learning and memorisation. In practice it is rather too normal for academic colleagues to despair of low levels of student engagement with feedback, this point is reflected in literature also (see for example Winstone et al., 2017). We know that fragmented curriculum design, siloed modules, and a lack of joined up assessment all play out to create assessment incoherence giving rise to engagement challenges (as outlined by Jessop, 2019). Assessment is often not designed for all students. In reality this leads to substantial activity in creating reasonable adjustments, whilst students experience a spotlight on their points of difference. To add to the complexity, disciplinary differences in assessment are evident – there are different assessment tribes with different norms and expectations (Simper et al., 2021); in practice I believe assessment change programmes sometimes unintentionally prioritise the needs of one tribe over another, which leave some groups confused as to why their approaches are being seemingly villainised (it’s a working theory for now!).

Literature is helpful to support individual change; it gives examples of things that may ‘work’ in practice. Literature helps identify assessment approaches within disciplines, and it identifies theoretical depictions of practice. It is less helpful in dealing with the wicked reality of large-scale change. How do we move our assessment practice to something which serves staff and students well? The widely praised TESTA work is of course a key reference point, alongside the brilliant JISC Viewpoints work. Both of these pieces of work point to programme level thinking and the need for us to plan across a whole student journey, or more accurately across students many and varied journeys. Nevertheless, making this happen across an institution, in the context of a messy environment with competing priorities, workload pressures, different disciplines, and staff experiences is no small job. While I wholeheartedly sign up to the idea that programme is king, and programme level assessment planning is essential, I also think there is a need to underpin assessment change thinking with a focus on the wider assessment ‘system’.

A few years ago now, my own doctoral work showed how the feedback landscape is experienced as a multi-layered reality with many components in a ‘system’ playing out to shape practice. My model showed individual staff at the centre of a system using their agency to make choices about feedback. Since developing this model around feedback, I have broadly conceived assessment in the same way – as a system of interconnected layers. If this holds true assessment change requires our attendance to a host of factors including culture, policy, organisational structures, professional development, and more. In the context of a rich system, asking individuals to make changes is simply not enough.

A Feedback Ecosystem (Arnold, 2015, 2017)

I have been working on assessment change in practice for some time, it’s been a long-game, and utterly imperfect, but these are some of the spaces where we have looked to nudge and influence and drive forward towards programme level, authentic, inclusive and manageable assessment.

Staff development: I am mooting but not claiming that postgraduate certificates and UK PSF programmes with their associated scholarship can raise staff assessment literacy and seed the process of change. Through observation I have noticed that through first hand study colleagues have experienced a variety of assessment methods which can challenge their deep-rooted assessment beliefs by modelling what is possible. I watched individuals evolve their viewpoints and then go out and influence others. It doesn’t always happen that way of course, but over a period of years, influencers are energised through these processes.

External speakers: Alongside formal programmes, carefully selected external speakers act as being change triggers within a system. The benefit of a good speaker isn’t in the reactive ‘that was interesting’ feedback – it is in the conversations years later when colleagues say ‘I remember that talk by xxxxxxxx and that thing they said really stayed with me”. ‘We’ still talk about keynotes and workshops even years on. That’s powerful. It can take years to see these messages take root, but they do. No matter how good the internal champions, or leaders on learning and teaching, it’s hard to be a preacher in your own parish. Inspiring external voices are really important. When I give talks on assessment, I rarely say anything different than the developers and leaders in the host institution, but the novel voices change the way that messages are heard. You might not see payback from external CPD straightaway, but in my view if you’re persistent it does have an impact.

Perceived quality assurance barriers and combative assessment cultures: The process of assessment change can feel bewildering, compounded by ritualistic, heavily documented and unnecessarily combative approvals processes. I’ve seen this in a range of institutions. There must be merit in simplifying the processes of enabling assessment changes. Processes need to be slicker, less burdensome, more inviting, always collegial, and supportive. We need to take down administrative barriers and frame our processes as welcoming. Over the summer we held an assessment amnesty, where we invited lasting changes in light of post(!) pandemic learning and we looked to minimise the effort needed to make this happen.

Programme team reflection: When promoting assessment change it is important that it is done in a coordinated way or we risk moving our assessment towards fragmentation by encouraging individualism amongst module leads. Planning from scratch at the programme level may not always be realistic without wholesale curriculum review, but there are ways that programme level thinking can be promoted within the life of a validated programme. By coordinating (and requiring) reflective discussions within programmes teams there is an opportunity to ask such things as, in light of ongoing experience, does ‘our’ assessment have the right level of balance, variety, workload, support, and structural enablement of feedback? This year, we introduced team moderation days where colleagues got together to look at assessment within each programme an consider how coordination can be strengthened. Feedback indicated that it felt good to get out of our own assessment ‘bubbles’ and see how the assessment jigsaw fully fits together for students. While it was tricky to organise, the benefit of formalising team reflection and moderation within the academic calendar is something I would wish to explore more.

Strategy: It’s worth adding that any assessment change should of course be underpinned by a clear strategy or we risk a scattershot approach to change. All of the above points need to be pointing towards a defined direction (which is itself the product of scholarship, underpinned by evidence, and aligned to institutional aims). That direction should be uber-clear; we should all know where we are pointing.

Within the toolbox of methods to affect change perhaps the greatest single opportunity to affect assessment comes through wholesale curriculum review, but without thought for the ‘system’ including institutional culture, and embedded ways of working, there may be limited meaningful transformation.

This piece is a reflection to complement a presentation made to the Royal Veterinary College in December 2021.

Gibbs, G. (2019). How assessment frames learning. In Cordelia Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (pp. 22–35). Routledge.

Jessop, T. (2019). Changing the narrative: a programme approach to assessment through TESTA. In Cordillia Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education (2nd ed., pp. 36–49). Routledge.

Mcdowell, L., Sambell, K., & Davison, G. (2009). Assessment for learning : a brief history and review of terminology. In Improving Student Learning Through the Curriculum (pp. 56–64). http://www.shu.ac.uk/_assets/pdf/2331LTAreportinorder.pdf

Simper, N., Mårtensson, K., Berry, A., & Maynard, N. (2021). Assessment cultures in higher education: reducing barriers and enabling change. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.1983770

Winstone, N. E., Nash, R. A., Rowntree, J., & Parker, M. (2017). ‘It’d be useful, but I wouldn’t use it’: barriers to university students’ feedback seeking and recipience. Studies in Higher Education, 42(11), 2026–2041. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1130032