The term electronic management of assessment (EMA) is increasingly being used to describe the way in which technology is used across the assessment life cycle to support the electronic submission of assignments, as well as marking and feedback.
Assessment and feedback involves the management of a complex set of business processes, especially in higher education. Many universities and colleges are seeing benefits and cost savings from using technology to support and to streamline these processes. This high level model shows the types of activity that can be supported through technology.
At a more detailed level the processes also include: assessment scheduling; submission of assignments; tracking of submissions; extension requests and approvals; academic integrity; academic misconduct processes; examinations; marks recording; moderation and external examining.
This guide draws on a body of work around assessment and feedback. It may be of interest to senior managers, academic staff, curriculum managers, administrators, and those involved in implementing and supporting technology-enhanced learning, assessment and feedback, and technology-enhanced business systems.
The range of benefits to students depends on how many of the associated processes are carried out electronically.
Typically many universities and colleges begin by replacing paper-based assignment submission with an online system. Both off-the-shelf and bespoke systems are used.
Reported benefits of online submission for students include:
- Convenience of not having to travel to hand in assignments
- Avoidance of printing costs
- Time savings and avoidance of anxiety about assignments going missing in the postal system
- Automatic proof of receipt
- Improved confidence provided by the privacy, safety and security of e-submission
- Confidence of knowing work is backed up
- Electronic reminders about deadlines and improved clarity about turnaround times for marking
- Realistic timing of submission deadlines (eg, a 23:59 deadline at the University of Huddersfield)
- Meeting expectations - that this is normal practice in a digital age.
Benefits for students increase when the end to end process is managed electronically so that marks and feedback are also delivered online. The additional benefits include:
- Improved clarity and understanding of feedback (not least as a result of not having to decipher handwriting)
- Improved timeliness (especially when some aspects of feedback are automated) enabling advice given on a previous assignment to be assimilated and applied in the next
- Increased privacy when marked work is returned electronically
- Many students report that feedback in electronic form is easier to use and therefore more likely they will revisit it at a later date.
Research shows an overall student preference for EMA and reveals that few need training to support its introduction. It must however be remembered that there will be access and accessibility issues for a minority of learners who will require additional support.
EMA delivers both pedagogic benefits and administrative efficiencies.
The greatest benefits for academic staff are delivered when both marking and feedback are carried out electronically.
Reported benefits of online feedback and marking for academic staff include:
- Greater transparency which has been shown to improve the standard and consistency of marking and feedback comments
- Improved clarity of marking and feedback (especially the ability to include lengthy comments at the appropriate point in the text)
- Reduced workload making it feasible to assess learners’ understanding more frequently
- Reduced administrative burden leaving more time to focus on individuals experiencing difficulties
- New opportunities to improve student understanding, for example, by extracting and analysing data held in an online marking system to achieve a more timely response to errors and weaknesses
- Increased satisfaction when improved feedback has a positive impact on student attainment
- The convenience of not having to collect and carry large quantities of paper
- The convenience of electronic filing
- The security of having work backed up on an online system
- The ability to moderate marks without having to physically exchange paper
- The increased speed and efficiency of being able to reuse common comments
- Improved morale through not having to write out repeated comments
- The convenience of being able to undertake originality and plagiarism checking in the same environment as marking
- Reduced data input and batch upload of marks.
"I can actually spend more time writing comments than I am spending emailing students back or all those other things."
Tutor, University of Huddersfield
"Whether the 'marking' is faster I think depends on each individual and it will be different. But the whole process is definitely quicker."
Tutor, University of South Wales
The move from paper-based to online systems can save a considerable amount of low value administrative effort associated with receiving, processing, distributing and filing student assignments throughout the academic year.
Academic case studies
At Queen's University Belfast the School of English moved to e-submission and marking which saved 20 working days per year in administrative staff time (in a school with c.900 students).
At the University of Huddersfield a time and motion study showed that an administrator dealing with 1,620 students saved 137 hours per year or 3.7 weeks based on a 37 hour working week.
At the University of Dundee time saved through e-submission and e-tutoring works out at around 20 mins per assignment submitted. The centralised e-tutoring approach at the University of Dundee has also generated further efficiencies in that tutor time spent responding to emails is 60 minutes per week as opposed to 176 minutes on a similar programme that does not employ the system.
Reducing administrative burden
As well as resulting in efficiency savings, there is a qualitative difference in the administrative tasks required to support assessment and feedback processes with the automation of some previously manual processes freeing up time to engage in more value added support roles:
"... the tasks that have been removed from the duties of administrative staff because of EMA are those that were particularly repetitive and therefore boring. These include date-stamping, logging and distributing assessment work. ... The time that has been saved has also meant that administrative staff can be redeployed to do tasks that can offer extra support to students and academic staff. "
University of Huddersfield
EMA can also provide the data necessary to undertake learning and assessment analytics. Without online systems it is difficult to collect and analyse data at a sufficient level of granularity to provide meaningful business intelligence.
Academic staff can immediately benefit by being able to illustrate to students where things are going wrong and turn common failings around more quickly. EMA also offers opportunities to identify and address weaknesses in module design more quickly.
In further education colleges and in teacher education within higher education there is an added impetus to embrace assessment analytics. Ofsted places an additional burden of care upon institutions to closely monitor progression and achievement and to use that data as part of the curriculum planning cycle.
The overall value of EMA depends on your organisational context.
Somewhat paradoxically EMA is easier to apply to relatively traditional forms of assessment such as essays, hence its value differs between disciplines.
There are still many hurdles to overcome in relation to submitting and marking assignments that include material such as:
- Mathematical and scientific formulae
- Musical notation
- Performances in the creative arts
There are however workarounds that can be applied. For example audio and video feedback can be provided and e-portfolios can be used for assessed work. This happens with the BA Hons in Dance at the University of Wolverhampton featured in effective assessment in a digital age.
Research suggests that students and administrative staff are quick to see the benefits of EMA whereas academic staff have more mixed views and may be more likely to resist changes to working practices.
The University of Exeter compared the view of its academic and professional service staff and found that:
'almost all professional staff saw clear benefits, while only half of the academic staff saw any benefit. Academic staff felt that administrators would be the main beneficiaries with students seeing some benefit. Professional staff, however, saw students as the main beneficiaries.'
Such perceptions need to be explored and addressed as part of any implementation strategy particularly in view of the opportunities afforded by EMA to remove low value administrative tasks from academic workload.
As with the adoption of many new technologies, attitudes to issues such as online marking and feedback are highly personal. Some staff may cite eye-strain as an issue. In contrast others find the accessibility functions inherent in online systems, eg the ability to alter font size and colour, offer advantages over paper marking.
It is important to acknowledge the spectrum of views, and the fact that some staff may find it difficult to adapt for various reasons, and support transition over a period of time.
"It is also important to allow them [academic staff] to justify their decision to move to e-marking in ways that make sense to them and help them maintain their sense of identity and agency."
University of Huddersfield
Implementation requires careful planning to ensure all of the right pieces, relating to people, processes and technology infrastructure, are in place.
A key issue in implementing EMA is to ensure that business processes are well designed and consistently implemented, with as few exceptions or workarounds as possible. Failure to ensure that business processes are transparent and consistent across the university or college can have a significant impact on parity of student experience. It can also inhibit the delivery of efficiencies through automation.
Roles and responsibilities
The University of Huddersfield emphasises the importance of what it terms “role clarity” in designing EMA workflows and specifically to distinguish clearly between roles that require administrative skills and those that require academic judgement. The design philosophy at Huddersfield is to move as many duties as possible from academic to administrative staff members.
"... any role or duty which can be automated and therefore be taken away from staff altogether is equally important. The principle here is that if you can get a machine to do it, get a machine to do it."
University of Huddersfield
Some senior managers are concerned about the cost of training for both students and staff to enable them to use EMA systems effectively. Evidence from some large-scale studies suggests that these fears are unfounded.
The vast majority of students are able to make their first online submission without any prior training. Similarly, in relation to online marking, the majority of academic staff members are able to master the basics without the need for formal training, using the self-paced training tools available within the products.
The University of Huddersfield suggests that staff development resources are better directed at supporting staff to:
- Use the more advanced functions
- Share their experiences to address issues that exist in specific disciplines and contexts
- Improve consistency.
Implementing full end-to-end EMA is a major undertaking for any university or college and involves significant change for many stakeholders.
Just as devolved business processes can seriously hamper institution-wide implementation, cultures and beliefs about time-honoured ways of marking and giving feedback can also bring about resistance to change. Clear evidence of benefits and repeated opportunities to try hands-on are important change management tactics.
Our detailed guide to change management includes strategies relating to EMA.
A typical implementation path might involve a move first to online submission of assignments followed by online feedback and then online marking. Few organisations are taking a strongly directive approach to online marking preferring instead to emphasise the benefits, reward those adopting the practice through a reduction in administrative duties and make use of 'champions' to share their positive experiences with colleagues.
"... staff sharing positive experiences can be a powerful means of bringing about change in practice and process"
Queen's University Belfast
"... it is important to build a strategy and a system which provides each group [of academics] with the support they need but also offers rewards and applies pressure in a consistent way such that moving away from paper-based marking and into e-marking makes the most sense to as many of them as possible."
University of Huddersfield
There are lots of practical resources to guide you in making the right decisions about EMA.
The University of Huddersfield has published an evaluation of four years work in large scale electronic management of assessment.
The University of Exeter has produced an evidence-based toolkit providing practical advice and recommendations for colleges and universities looking to improve assessment and feedback by introducing an end-to-end technical solution for e-submission, e-marking and e-feedback.
The Heads of e-Learning Forum (HelF) conducts an annual survey on the electronic management of assessment in the UK.
You can also explore the latest thinking and resources around assessment management from universities and colleges undertaking projects in this area. Our publication effective assessment in a digital age contains background and examples.
Our video explores how technology is enhancing the student experience with assessment and feedback.
This is one in a series of guides around assessment and feedback. You may also like our guides on:
- Feedback and feed forward
- Changing assessment and feedback practice with the help of technology
- Enhancing student employability through technology supported assessment and feedback
We have undertaken a further project around EMA which sought to provide solutions to sector challenges.
Read our landscape review of EMA, or see our new guide on transforming assessment and feedback with technology which has been designed to help you make better use of technology to manage the assessment and feedback process. It will help you to improve academic practice and the business process that supports this. See the project blog for more information.
Keep in touch with the latest news from the programme through Twitter using the hashtag #jiscassess, or join our open mailing list. For any further information or to provide feedback of any of the resources contact Lisa Gray.