A view of the assessment and feedback landscape in 2012 revealed that this is an area where traditional practices predominate and remain 'stubbornly resistant to change'. With students expressing less satisfaction with assessment and feedback than with any other aspect of their learning experience, change is both desirable and necessary in many areas.
This guide offers many lessons learned and much good practice about how to approach large-scale change in assessment and feedback practice. It may be of interest to senior managers, programme teams responsible for curriculum design, and any staff interested in reviewing assessment and feedback practice or in organisational change.
Universities and colleges are increasingly revising their learning and teaching strategies to encompass learning, teaching and assessment but there are still many examples where responsibility for assessment and feedback is devolved to individual faculties, schools and departments, leading to inconsistencies in approach. We strongly recommend that institutions need to articulate what good practice is if they are to direct change and evaluate progress.
A good means of doing this is to define the educational principles that underpin assessment and feedback in your university or college. In a short guide entitled Why use assessment and feedback principles? Professor David Nicol highlights the fact that principles can:
- Help define the vision behind proposed changes and provide a way to put this into operation
- Summarise the research literature for busy academics
- Provide a common language to discuss changes in practice across the institution
- Guide innovation in any disciplinary context (if formulated appropriately)
- Provide reference points for evaluating change in the quality of educational provision
- Provide an educational framework for selecting and applying technologies and for evaluating the value of their implementation
By defining the educational values that characterise each organisation, academics, learning technologists and those responsible for quality assurance and administration have been able to work together to look at whether those principles are genuinely reflected in practice. Where improvement is required, they have been able to move forward on the basis of a shared understanding of what is fundamentally important.
In conjunction with Professor Mark Russell, we have produced an overview of published principles that have been influential in recent years. This includes the highly influential set of REAP principles developed through the work of Professor Nicol and colleagues at the University of Strathclyde and the set of ten feedback principles published by the NUS. Research into what makes for effective educational principles continues. There is a growing body of evidence that highlights the active engagement of learners in assessment and feedback as the critical factor in enhancing learning.
A good example of putting educational principles into practice can be seen at Ulster University. The university has developed a workshop-based approach to helping academic staff rethink a module or course based on the REAP principles.
For each of the university’s principles (pdf) there is background information on the research that led to this being accepted as good practice and a set of implementation ideas that can be printed as cards for use in workshops. All of the workshop resources are freely available and have been used extensively by other universities and colleges with excellent feedback on their value.
The University of Hertfordshire has taken a similar approach, producing guidance for staff on how to implement its assessment for learning principles as well as a series of activity cards for use in staff development workshops to help tutors put principles into practice.
The University of Exeter has used its principles to develop a model to support “work-integrated assessment”: assessment in which students perform work-focused tasks that blend academic and professional knowledge and skills. Tutors use principles relating to peer review and collaborative working, for example, to stimulate thinking about curriculum design. This helps ensure that assessments are structured to help students evidence work-related skills. The university has also used the idea of the popular Top Trumps game to create Tech Trumps cards to show how technologies can be applied to various aspects of work-integrated assessment.
Effective stakeholder engagement is critical to the success of any change project and actually engaging stakeholders is different to merely having a communications plan. A useful concept in thinking about this is the notion of a “ladder of engagement” first developed in the area of public policy in the 1960s. The rungs of the ladder move from nonparticipation and tokenistic participation through to partnership and, ultimately, full stakeholder control.
Technology can be used to support engagement in many ways and to keep stakeholders updated with the outcomes of each round of engagement on the basis that people are more likely to contribute if they can see how their contributions are being acted upon.
There are many ideas for stimulating participation in our detailed guide to planning a participatory workshop.
Appreciative inquiry (AI) is a technique for approaching change in a positive way. It can be used to gain an understanding of the baseline situation you are starting from and as a basis for action planning to move forward, building on what you are already doing well.
The approach is about focusing on the positive as opposed to identifying “what is wrong and what you need to do to fix it”. Cooperrider and Whitney (2005), who developed the approach, devised a 4D cycle of discovery, dream, design and destiny, with your affirmative topic of choice at the centre.
The diagram below shows how Queen's University, Belfast used appreciative inquiry to enhance assessment and feedback practice across the organisation taking "educational principles for assessment and feedback" as its affirmative topic of choice.
Other organisations have taken similar approaches including benchmarking against some of the widely used assessment and feedback principles. You may find Brunel University's appreciative inquiry toolkit helpful in furthering your understanding.
"The appreciative inquiry approach is beginning to demonstrate to academic staff that there is much that is positive in what they do and in their experiences. It has also provided a context in which they are not being ‘told what is wrong and how to fix it’, but a supportive environment in which to try out ideas."
Queen's University, Belfast
Received wisdom has it that it is notoriously difficult to involve students in organisational change because of their other commitments and their relatively short-term engagement with the institution. Recent experience from our projects, however, suggests otherwise. There is now a considerable body of evidence to show that effective engagement with learners in terms of a genuine partnership can bring enormous benefits to projects.
- Birmingham City University's Student Academic Partnership scheme
- University of Exeter work on students as change agents
- Bath Spa University and the University of Winchester's joint work with student fellows to improve assessment and feedback practice
At Bath Spa and Winchester, the universities used student fellows to work with lecturers and students to develop technology for specific assessment problems, and to evaluate its use.
The student fellows were co-constructors of the research and development. They acted as insiders and change agents, developing an understanding of assessment principles, familiarity with technology and research skills. The success of the initiative was such that it grew from an original team of 17 student fellows to a total of 60.
"... the novice-expert dynamic has been overturned. … it is not us who are privileging the Student Fellows by awarding them with these important roles, but rather we who are privileged because of the insights we have gained from being allowed into their worlds."
Bath Spa University and the University of Winchester
Bath Spa and Winchester identified two of their assessment and feedback principles as being key to working with students:
- Distributing assessed tasks across a course to ensure that students spend sufficient time on their studies throughout
- Assessment focused on the progress of students’ learning, rather than simply measuring them against others
They had the following successes in using specific technologies to support the implementation of these principles:
- Through weekly blogging on humanities and arts courses, students reflected more on their work, spent more time on appropriate tasks and became more confident about goals and standards
- Video capture of mock trials improved law students’ ability to self-regulate and to close the gap between current and desired performance
- With e-portfolios students approached tasks in a more coherent and organised way. Their ability to reflect on their work also improved
- Audio and screencast feedback increased student attention to feedback
- Marking tools, Grademark in particular, led to improvements in the quality of feedback
Hear more from the team at the University of Winchester and Bath Spa University in our video about their work with student fellows.
Change involves transition from one state to another and it is often the uncertainties of the transitional period that cause fear and opposition rather then the change itself. Our detailed guide on change management includes some useful guidance on transition management.
Whilst it often appears that there are particular issues when the change involves implementation of new technology, in fact the underlying issues are very similar.
The Open University researched staff attitudes to adopting new tools to support curriculum design and identified and analysed five common objections that arise equally often when changing assessment practice:
- “I haven’t enough time.”
There may be a number of reasons that staff members perceive they lack time. The focus on the external factor “time” deflects attention from the individual's skill set and their own responsibility for appraising current activities to decide what could be done differently.
- “It doesn’t help me”
It is quite hard to argue against an individual who believes a change is of little personal value. However, such arguments are often ill thought through or focus on relatively superficial issues. In contrast, it is possible to demonstrate the value of changing assessment practice and the benefit to students through the extended and applied use of a tool or approach.
- “Prove to me this works.” or “Where is the evidence?”
Ostensibly these are fair and reasonable requests but the link between demonstrable evidence of impact and convincing someone to use a tool or approach is not straightforward. Some academics are happy to pilot a new teaching idea with limited evidence beyond a “hunch” whereas others continue to argue against practices (especially with regard to assessment and feedback) that are recognised sector-wide as good practice. This issue may be compounded by the fear that a new approach will reveal deficiencies in existing practice or result in loss of autonomy.
- 'I don't really need to use it.'
Demonstrating need can often be difficult due to the fact that many current measures of quality have emerged to measure current practices not new ones. Our detailed guide to managing course information has some interesting examples of where analysing data about the curriculum and about assessment practice has led to large-scale change.
- "Not another new initiative!"
The broader organisational and further and higher education context is important. Many change projects describe staff within their organisation as suffering from 'initiative fatigue'. The technology you are trying to implement may be just one of many changes taking place internally and externally.
The tools that permit the online marketing of student assignments have been the source of much contention in the academic community. Views can be extremely polarised and highly personal. For example:
- Those resisting the change may cite age as a relevant factor and state that on-screen marking causes them eye strain
- Advocates, on the other hand, may state (again citing their age as relevant) that not having to carry heavy piles of essays is a significant benefit, as is the ability to make use of the accessibility functions available on screen such as being able to adjust font size and colour for ease of reading
A large scale study of attitudes to e-marking, carried out by the University of Huddersfield, identified that academic staff attitudes are split into three main groups:
- Those who are innovators or early adopters and have migrated enthusiastically to e-marking
- Those who have approached it more cautiously
- Those who have done so reluctantly or have tried it and then moved back to paper marking
The University of Huddersfield wanted to achieve a situation whereby e-marking was established as the norm. It recognised that it needed different implementation strategies for each of the three types of academic staff (administrative staff and students being generally in favour of a general move to fully electronic assignment handling).
By offering rewards (reduced administrative duties) and applying pressure (strategy/policy and peer pressure) in a consistent way, it ensured that moving away from paper-based marking and into e-marking made the most sense to as many academics as possible.
"Our experience has proven that a particularly effective way of managing the transition to e-marking is to allow each of these groups to continue working (ie to continue to undertake their marking) in the way that they feel most comfortable and the consequence is that the movement from paper to e-marking happens organically.
This is a time-consuming strategy (in that it will probably take several academic years to achieve) but it is a process that will generate the least disgruntlement and hostility."
University of Huddersfield
Key steps to take in implementing change to assessment and feedback practice are:
- Define the educational principles that underpin assessment and feedback in your organisation
- Open up a dialogue about assessment and feedback practice and make sure you emphasise what you already do well
- Think about how your principles are reflected in course documentation and through other organisational processes such as validation and course review
- Realise that acceptance is not the same as action: ensure principles are stated in a way that requires action and accompany this by some form of goal setting
- Decide what is the appropriate level of engagement for each of your stakeholders and find creative ways to keep them engaged
- Recognise that the process of transition to a new state can generate more resistance than the end goal
- Understand that compulsion is sometimes counter-productive and a phased approach to change works best in some situations
- Use the resources highlighted here to build implementation of your educational principles into staff development activities
- Take a look at this blueprint for transformational organisational change
As well as the resources highlighted in this guide, you may find the following resources on change management in relation to your assessment and feedback practice helpful.
- The Ulster University viewpoints assessment and feedback tool for staff development in this area
- Our publication effective assessment in a digital age and information on models of change in assessment and feedback for latest thinking and resources from universities and colleges undertaking projects in this area
- The Higher Education Academy’s publication A Marked Improvement provides a strong rationale for transforming assessment in higher education, an assessment review tool and an annotated selection of key resources in the field of assessment. The review tool offers a practical method to take stock of institutional policy and practice, and look to a targeted approach to strategic change.
- Achieving educational change by David Nicol and Steve Draper
This is one in a series of guides around assessment and feedback. You may also like our guides on electronic management of assessment (EMA), feedback and feed forward and enhancing student employability through technology supported assessment and feedback.
For more detailed information, see our guide on transforming assessment and feedback with technology.
Keep in touch the latest news from the programme through Twitter using the hashtag #jiscassess, or join our open mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org. For any further information or to provide feedback of any of the resources contact Lisa Gray at Jisc.