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Rethinking assessment practices

25 Aug 2020 | Dr Rachel Shanks In the fourth blog in the series from contributing authors to Advance HE’s recent publication, On Your Marks: Learner-focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacy, Senior Lecturer in Education, Dr Rachel Shanks, shares her thoughts on how assessment tasks and marking could reflect online professional practice.

COVID-19’s effect on assessment practices

In the spring and summer of 2020, COVID-19 lockdowns led to the cancellation or change in assessment method for thousands of higher education students in many countries. So, it is a useful time to consider what do we hope to achieve through our assessment, feedback and marking practices and should we make them more relevant and easier to implement online?

For many colleagues the COVID-19 pandemic has meant changing, even re-imagining, higher education assessment practices with the cancellation of in-person examinations. In the Advance HE publication, On Your Marks: Learner-focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacy assessment, feedback and marking practices have been examined with contributions including topics such as the use of examplars, the alignment of assessment practices, and the development of staff and students’ assessment and feedback literacy. The publication concludes with a paper on how COVID-19 provides an opportunity to reconsider and assessment and feedback practices.

Re-imagining university examinations

Like other contributions to ‘On Your Marks’, my own paper focuses on how to re-imagine assessment practices to develop professional skills that will be of use to students beyond their time at university. I teach several courses for which assessment is wholly or partly based on blog posts that students write and comment on. The blog posts create opportunities for both peer to peer learning and summative assessment.

Benefits of using blog posts for assessment

Blog posts as the assessment method bring several benefits to students and staff, including:

  1. Reducing the assessment burden on students.
  2. Breaking the assessment task into ‘manageable chunks’.
  3. Lessening students’ fear of the assessment through the peer review element.
  4. Students are more likely to address all the assessment criteria if each blog post must relate to one of the essential criteria.
  5. Building student confidence in their ability to work at the appropriate level.
  6. Creation of an authentic method of assessment.
  7. Producing both peer and inner assessment by students.
  8. Students enjoy and appreciate this method of assessment.
  9. Students give each other emotional and cognitive support (Robertson, 2011).

To achieve these benefits, it takes time to develop student resources and to re-imagine the assessment as a series of related blog post topics. Below are some recommendations on how to do this.

Recommendations on using blog posts for assessment

Building on Sim and Hew’s (2010) recommendations on the use of blogs in higher education I suggest the following steps to ensure that students can enjoy the benefits of writing blog posts for assessment:

  1. Take time to explain the benefits of blogging and reviewing peers’ blog posts to the students.
  2. Encourage students to see their blog as a safe place for them to reflect on their experiences, this may entail restricting access to the blog posts.
  3. Make the blog posts an integral part of the course and not an add-on or extra activity.
  4. Allow students some leeway so that they can combine blog entries rather than sticking to a rigid word count for each topic or post.
  5. Emphasise how students will learn from reading and commenting on their peer’s blog posts because when they return to their own work it will be with ‘a fresh pair of eyes’.

Looking backwards to look forwards

The writing of blog posts as a university assessment is far removed from my own undergraduate experience which consisted, almost exclusively, of in-person examinations lasting three hours during which I would have to write five essays. In my working life, in the thirty years since my first graduation, I do not believe I have ever had to sit and write something without being allowed to refer to other resources. I don’t see why we are still using assessment methods that do not align with practices or skills that will be needed after graduation. I believe that university assessment should not only be for the assessment of a student’s knowledge, I think we should prioritise assessment methods that can mirror types of work that may be needed in future professional practice, for example writing blog posts. Therefore, I wonder what should university assessment practices prioritise: the assessment of knowledge; or the ability of students to assess and deploy knowledge and information?

The full report is available for Advance HE members: On Your Marks: Learner-focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacy

Dr Rachel Shanks is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Aberdeen and Programme Director of the BA in Professional Development, a part-time degree focused on professional practice and enquiry. She researches professional learning and children’s rights in education. She also teaches computer assisted qualitative data analysis software.

Patrich Baughan, editor of 'On Your Marks', is organising a further symposium on assessment and feedback, to be held online on 28 October 2020, with the theme Assessment and feedback in the pandemic era: a time for learning and inclusion. The call for papers is now open and, once again, there will be a linked publication to which presenters can submit papers.

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