Reimagining digital assessment in higher education

A primer created for university leaders exploring the current and future opportunities for digital assessment.


Assessment is crucial to the educational process. Done properly, it drives improvement, shapes learner behaviour, and provides accountability to employers and others. It can also be a source of dissatisfaction, frustration, and anxiety.

  • Does it assess the right things?
  • Is it getting the best from learners?
  • Does it take place at the right points in the learning journey?
  • Is it susceptible to cheating?
  • Does it involve a sustainable workload?

There have been many small-scale trials of digital assessment. There has been acknowledgement of its benefits, from greater effectiveness and fairness for students and teachers to efficiency and cost savings for universities.

Over the last nine months universities have had to move rapidly to a very different model of assessment and many made use of digital and online technologies to do this.

“I’m hoping that the current situation will have opened the Pandora’s box in that more academics will see the advantages of using digital technology for assessment and use this as a stepping stone or as a building block for exploring what the possibilities are going forward.”

Mariann Rand-Weaver, vice-provost (education), Brunel University London

Impact of digital assessment

A well-developed offering of digital and online assessment:

  • Enhances the student experience
  • Potentially improve student outcomes
  • Balances the security and equity trade off

However, there are also risks as assessment is moved online:

  • Scaling up rapidly is complex
  • Overly locked-down and digitally proctored exams can cause additional student stress
  • Students may have challenges in finding appropriate spaces to undertake online exams and assessments

Overview of digital assessment in the sector

Universities are in a continual process of planning and delivering programmes of study.

The landscape has now, however, fundamentally changed and universities are looking to mitigate risks while ensuring continued high-quality provision and a positive student experience, despite the uncertain times. 

Effective use of digital technology is seen as fundamental in helping to ensure continuity of learning, meeting current and future social distancing requirements, and engaging positively with students. The use of online and digital assessment in the summer of 2020 demonstrated the potential of technology and digital to transform and reimagine assessment, but it also brought to the fore the potential challenges and issues that will need to be overcome.

Assessment is ready for change, and it needs to change to unleash the full potential of both students and the technologies available to educators.

A vision for digital assessment

The role of assessment in the educational process is crucial and it helps to drive improvement, shape student behaviour and provides recognition and accountability to employers and others.

Digital and online assessment must satisfy and, ideally exceed, these requirements and be used in full consideration of the potential negative and harmful issues that can arise when online assessment is used.

Digital assessment action plan

A wide range of elements need to be considered to design, deliver, and support effective online assessment including feedback to students:

  • Do you have a clear understanding of what ‘good’ digital and online assessment looks like, including how this aligns with requirements for learning, teaching, assessment and quality assurance? How is this understanding communicated and shared within your institution?
  • Have you identified your aims and what success will look like in terms of the use of digital and online assessment within your institution (and/or for individual programmes or specific groups of students)?
  • How will you ensure assessment is authentic, accessible, appropriately automated, continuous and secure?
  • Have you considered the wellbeing and mental health implications of reimagining your assessment models?
  • How will digital and online assessment look in the short term and how will it look in the medium term and long term?
  • What digital and pedagogical skills are required by staff to design, develop and deliver digital and online assessment? How will you ensure that staff not only have the technical skills, but also have the knowledge and understanding to design pedagogically sound assessment?
  • Have institutional policies (eg GDPR, online safety, accessibility, inclusion, complaints and wellbeing) been updated to reflect the change in how assessment is undertaken.
  • How will staff and students be made aware of the information on online assessment that is relevant to them?

“Put ourselves in the position of young people who are having to take the assessments that we’re offering at the moment and to really be honest about whether those assessments are serving those young people well. If they aren’t then what are we going to do about it? Do we still think it’s going to be ok in ten years’ time? What are we doing about that?”

Martyn Ware, head of assessment futures, Scottish Qualifications Authority


Universities should ensure they have strategies for maintaining high levels of student motivation and engagement as a core feature of the student experience, that includes online and digital assessment. Universities should plan to adopt Jisc’s five principles for technology-enhanced assessment:

  • Authentic - assessments designed to prepare students for what they do next, using technology they will use in their careers
  • Accessible - assessments designed with an accessibility-first principle
  • Appropriately automated - a balance found of automated and human marking to deliver maximum benefit to students
  • Continuous - assessment data used to explore opportunities for continuous assessment to improve the learning experience
  • Secure - authoring detection and biometric authentication adopted for identification and remote proctoring


Case study: University of London

The University of London (UoL) took 40,000 students sitting around 500 exams in 160 countries from face-to-face, solely pen and paper to digital testing in one move, which included digitally proctored exams. Craig O’Callaghan, UoL worldwide director of operations and deputy chief executive, said at the time:

“What we were expecting to do maybe two or three years down the road we’re going to try and do this summer. We’re making an enormous step change in our assessment piece at this moment.”

UoL rapidly produced three assessment routes using the platforms Moodle and Turnitin for most exams and digitally-proctored exams for about 10,000 students using Janison and CoSector. It also extended the timetable to enable large-scale testing and practice for students.

Case study: Brunel

Brunel University started in a stronger position than many: about 20% of students were already experienced in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) exams and it was in its third year of rolling out the platform WISEflow for digital exams and all course work assignments, supported by a well-established laptop loan scheme.

It moved to open-book, take-home exams, without locked-down devices or remote proctoring, mostly sat in an exam-length timeframe (eg a two or three-hour exam) with questions revised where necessary for suitability and some types of assessment changed to include longer pieces of work. Mariann Rand-Weaver, vice-provost (education) says:

“I would be surprised if we don’t find that we’ve got to a place where we wanted to get to much quicker as a result.”

Help and support

There are many ways sector organisations like Jisc can support you in transforming the assessment with digital technologies.

Advice and guidance




Learning and teaching reimagined

This primer has been designed to be used with other resources created as part of the learning and teaching reimagined initiative.

This guide is made available under Creative Commons License (CC BY-NC-ND).