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Mental Wellbeing

Education for Mental Health Toolkit - Assessment for Learning

In much of the debate around the relationship between curriculum and wellbeing, assessment is regarded as a potential risk point which can create unhelpful stress, anxiety, self-doubt and fatigue (1).

Assessment for Learning

In much of the debate around the relationship between curriculum and wellbeing, assessment is regarded as a potential risk point which can create unhelpful stress, anxiety, self-doubt and fatigue (1). This is particularly the case when students and assessment design have a performance focus – when reaching a specific set of predetermined standards is the reason assessment exists and is the centre of student focus (2-3). In this scenario, assessments will carry high stakes – there is a significant price to pay for failure - and students will be focussed mainly or solely on what they need to do to succeed. Little attention will be paid to the opportunity to learn through the assessment. As a consequence, assessments can appear as a threat, which can create a fear response that impedes learning and is negative for wellbeing (4-5).  

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      However, assessment does not have to be conceptualised or operationalised in this way. Completing assessment tasks can, in fact, increase and deepen learning, heightening a sense of meaningful connection between student and subject and building confidence and self-efficacy (6-7). Engaging in assessment activity can be good for learning and wellbeing. 

      A key element of a learning focussed curriculum is an assessment strategy that focusses on how assessment can support learning. Assessment for learning was defined by Black et al. (6) as  

      “…any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting students’ learning. It thus differs from assessment designed primarily to serve the purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence.” 

      Assessment for learning is often associated with formative learning but it can describe any form of assessment, as long as the primary purpose and effect is to deepen and enhance student learning. These assessments will be specifically designed to: 

      • increase disciplinary knowledge (e.g., by requiring students to engage in further reading or research),  
      • build understanding (e.g., by having students work with complex concepts and applying them to new situations) 
      • and/or develop key skills and competencies (e.g., by requiring practice and refinement). 

      In this model, assessment is not seen as an activity that occurs after teaching and learning, but rather is viewed as a component part of teaching and learning. Students deepen their learning through engaging with the assessment task and by receiving and responding to feedback on their work (8-9). Discussing this approach with students can also help to establish a culture that has a learning focus, taking attention away from performance, competition and fear of potential failure (2, 4, 10).  

      In curriculum design, therefore, constructive alignment between learning outcomes, teaching and assessment should focus on how the assessment will support students to develop to meet the learning focussed outcomes. Assignment briefs can highlight the learning and development students can expect by completing the task. Assessments may also be accompanied by meta-cognitive activities, asking students to evaluate their own work, discuss their own learning and development and respond to feedback. 

      Additional gain may also be found if assessments are designed to encourage deep learning and to support students to engage with relevant material that they find meaningful (or to find meaning in key material) (11). In this way assessment activity can support students to embed and develop the knowledge, understanding and skill that will be required for future stages of learning. In turn, through reflection, students can increase their sense of self-efficacy and engaging in assessment can produce positive emotional and psychological experiences such as a sense of fulfilment, excitement, pleasure and meaning.  

      Key lessons 

      • While assessment is often associated with risks to wellbeing, if well designed it can support learning and wellbeing. 
      • Assessment for learning places a priority on promoting student learning, rather than on measuring ability to meet predetermined criteria.  
      • Assessment for learning is seen as a component part of teaching and learning. Learning can be supported through the design of the task, through feedback and through accompanying meta-cognitive exercises. 
      • An assessment for learning strategy can support a performance focussed culture, that is beneficial for learning and wellbeing. 

      Top tips 

      • Identify key knowledge, understanding and skills that students should develop and ensure the assessment task is designed to stretch and develop these. 
      • Use assessment briefs to highlight the learning and development students can expect by completing the task.   
      • Provide accompanying meta-cognitive tasks, such as requiring students to reflect on their own work or provide responses to feedback detailing how they will apply it in future learning. 
      • Use feedback to highlight the learning and development students have gained from completing the task  
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        References 
        1. Jones E, Priestley M, Brewster L, Wilbraham SJ, Hughes G, Spanner L. Student wellbeing and assessment in higher education: the balancing act. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 2021 Apr 3;46(3):438-50. Available from: doi: 10.1080/02602938.2020.1782344
        2. Watkins C. Learning, Performance and Improvement [Internet]. London: INSI Research Matters; 2010. Available from: http://www.ioe.ac.uk/about/documents/Watkins_10_Lng_Perf_Imp_ev.pdf
        3. Soderstrom NC, Bjork RA. Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2015 Mar;10(2):176-99. Available from: doi: 10.176-199.10.1177/1745691615569000
        4. Howard E. A review of the literature concerning anxiety for educational assessments [Internet]. Coventry. Ofqual; 2020. Available from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/865832/A_review_of_the_literature_concerning_anxiety_for_educational_assessment.pdf
        5. Chamberlain S, Daly AL, Spalding V. The fear factor: Students’ experiences of test anxiety when taking A-level examinations. Pastoral Care in Education. 2011 Sep 1;29(3):193-205.
        6. Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B, Wiliam D. Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi delta kappan. 2004 Sep;86(1):8-21.
        7. Ibarra-Sáiz MS, Rodríguez-Gómez G, Boud D. The quality of assessment tasks as a determinant of learning. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 2021;46(6):943–55
        8. Bloom BS. Mastery learning. In J. Block JH, editor. Mastery learning: Theory and practice. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston; 1971. p.47-63.
        9. Hattie J, Timperley H. The power of feedback. Review of educational research. 2007 Mar;77(1):81-112. Available from: doi: 10.3102/003465430298487
        10. O’Keefe PA, Ben-Eliyahu A, Linnenbrink-Garcia L. Shaping achievement goal orientations in a mastery-structured environment and concomitant changes in related contingencies of self-worth. Motivation and Emotion. 2013 Mar;37(1):50-64. Available from: doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-012-9293-6 
        11. Postareff L, Mattsson M, Lindblom-Ylänne S, Hailikari T. The complex relationship between emotions, approaches to learning, study success and study progress during the transition to university. Higher education. 2017 Mar 1;73(3):441-57.