Why is employability and assessment important?
Universities and colleges are under increasing pressure from government and regulators, as well as fee-paying students and their families, to demonstrate that their courses can enhance a student's future employment prospects. They are also keen to be the first port of call for employers seeking to develop their workforce capabilities (see also our section on work-based assessment).
What are the common problems?
Issues include a perceived lack of alignment between common assessment practice and the formative ways in which professionals develop throughout their careers. Learning providers continue to place considerable emphasis on key episodes of summative assessment. In contrast professional development tends to be an ongoing process related to gathering and making sense of formative feedback from a range of stakeholders, including clients as well as peers.
In other sections of this guide (see particularly setting and supporting) we state the importance of achieving clarity around assessment criteria and standards. However in some cases the notion of fixed assessment criteria and grading structures may run counter to the work environment.
In a business context working out exactly what the client requires, and what are the most crucial parts of the brief, can often be challenging but key to success. This underlines the value of engaging learners in defining assessment criteria and making evaluative judgements.
This raises the challenging question: Are we being too specific in detailing exactly how students get marks from our assessments? Should part of the assessment be the task of working out which are the more crucial parts of the assessment itself?
"It seems that assessment in business is a cumulative and ongoing process with mostly undefined criteria that must be independently discovered, so in order to make our own assessments more authentic we may need to reduce the level of definition we create about mark allocation."
University of Exeter
The development of self-regulated learning, perhaps best expressed as the skills needed for lifelong learning should be one of the key aims of assessment. However the lifelong learning approach is often neglected in assessment design.
Defining employability assessment types
There are issues around defining and describing types of assessment that support employability which can act as cultural barriers to improving pedagogic practice. The term authentic assessment is frequently used in connection with employability. However this can receive a negative reaction from many academic staff who feel the term inappropriately suggests that many other forms of assessment are not valid in their own context.
Other terms that may be used to describe this type of assessment include: integrated; work focused; experiential; work-related; contextual; alternative, and situated.
Feedback in employment settings
In the section on feedback and feed forward we challenge the notion that feedback is something to be delivered by tutors to students. In employment settings professionals also require skills not only in interpreting feedback but also in giving feedback (see also the sections on peer assessment and peer review).
Another issue is that students are often not very good at recognising the transferable skills they have developed and articulating these to potential employers.
How might we use technology and what are the benefits?
Technology can help achieve a greater employability focus in assessment practice in various ways by:
- Providing rich evidence of employability skills (through audio and video recording devices, webcams, e-portfolios)
- Enabling learners to capture and reflect on the process of learning (through e-portfolios, blogs, video annotation software)
- Capturing work-related performance for appraisal by a tutor or mentor (through audio and video recording devices, webcams)
- Creating opportunities for employment-related assessments that are difficult to create in the classroom (ie, virtual worlds, online simulated professional and vocational environments)
- Supporting scenario-based assessment (through online diagnostic tools, computer-generated/marked assessments)
- Supporting peer assessment and review (using software tools such as Peerwise or WebPA)
- Mapping opportunities for acquiring and assessing wider employability skills across complex curricula ie, medicine (using mind mapping and curriculum mapping tools)
- Mapping assessments and learning outcomes against employability outcomes; making these visible to all stakeholders (via curriculum databases, virtual learning environments or VLEs, learning portals).
How does employability and assessment relate to the lifecycle?
Enhancing employability is very much a curriculum design issue. At the specifying stage you think about the ways in which the methods of assessment resemble practices that students may encounter in a work environment.
At the setting stage you will select topics and problems that relate to real world situations and clarify how specific learning outcomes relate to a broader set of skills and competencies (you may call these graduate attributes).
The reflecting stage is likely to be of particular importance with both self and peer reflection as important features of assessment practice that seek to enhance employability.
What resources can help?
- Read our case study on enhancing employability through assessment at the University of Exeter and watch the associated video below
- Birmingham City University uses videos embedded in a 3-D graphical representation of a town called Shareville enabling students to develop the professional skills needed in the real world
- The College of West Anglia set up an award-winning media production company and internet TV station, Springboard TV, remodelling the curriculum in the process to enable Media BTEC and diploma learners to be assessed on real-world projects
Further useful resources
- The University of Exeter's case studies outline good practice examples in employability and assessment. Their short video clips show how employers can be involved in assessment
- Read our case study on how the University of Edinburgh incorporated the employability agenda into core learning activities and assessed learning outcomes
- See also our case studies relating to employability and assessment in FE and skills at the City of Glasgow College and Portland College.
Designing work integrated assessment
The University of Exeter's designing a work integrated assessment model focuses on six areas when designing assessment to support employability.
|Problem / data|
Set a real world problem as the core assessment task, supported by real world data
Purely academic learning might require a theoretical problem in order to test a theoretical understanding. In employment though problems tend to be very real, and data rarely comes in coherent, standardised forms. It is usually in 'messier' formats that need to be interpreted to be of use. Using a real world problem and real world data helps to develop skills in analysis, interpretation and evaluation.
Move to a more distributed pattern of assessment; consider introducing ‘surprise’ points
Assessments are often delivered in the form of one summative assessment, eg an exam or essay, at the end of a period of formal learning. In employment however, ‘assessment’ or evaluation points tend to occur frequently. In addition, timing is often out of individual control, and consequently it can be necessary to juggle competing tasks at short notice. Using multiple assessment points helps to develop reflective thinking, whilst ‘surprise’ points support task prioritisation.
Create teams of students who work together to complete the assessment, encourage collaboration
Many forms of assessment require working alone, yet employment invariably requires some form of collaboration and team work, and often with unknown and perhaps even challenging individuals. Encouraging students to work collaboratively and in teams improves their ability to negotiate and discuss, and develops their understanding of team roles and role flexibility.
Include peer and/or self-review explicitly in the assessment process
Typically the review of assessments (ie, feedback) in formal education is only provided by teaching staff. In employment, however, much of the review process comes in multiple forms, eg, informal peer feedback from colleagues, formal and informal reviews from clients, and self-review of personal performance. Including peer and/or self-review explicitly within an assessment helps students to develop critical thinking skills, and encourages articulation and evidencing.
Lightly structure the overall assessment; reward student approaches
Most thinking on assessment suggests that there should be explicit guidance to students concerning how and where marks are attained. However in employment part of the challenge for the individual and/or team is the structuring of the work that needs to be completed. Tasks need to be identified, processes decided, and priorities allocated. Using a light structure approach encourages students to plan tasks and goals in order to solve a bigger problem, strengthening their project management and prioritisation skills.
Aim to set explicit audiences for each assessment point
In higher education the audience for an assessment is implicitly the academic that sets it, who will naturally be already aligned in some way with the course and/or module. This contrasts with employment, where the audience can be peers, but is more often the client or another external third party, with different values, priorities and expectations. Having to think for a different audience on an assessment provokes greater reflective thinking, and requires new types of synthesis.