Why are quality assurance and standards important?
Assessment is not only central to the learning experience - it results in a summative judgement that impacts a student's future life chances. For this reason assessment practices in colleges and universities are subject to rigorous quality assurance mechanisms.
It's extremely challenging to measure something as complex as a learning experience and compare them across different institutions. The issues are complicated and beyond the scope of this guide however our is to support transformational assessment practice, based on sound educational principles, to enhance students' prospects.
The approach to assessment suggested in this guide, and many of the examples of good practice, are a far cry from the traditional approaches supported by the many existing regulations, standards and marking schemes. The 2007 Burgess group report noted that a single summative judgement is increasingly irrelevant and inappropriate given more flexible curricula, different forms of study including work-based learning, and more diverse assessment practices.
"All of this has given rise to a dramatic increase in the diversity of assessment practices, beyond the traditional examinations at the end of a year, or years, of study, and is designed to capture a wider range of student achievement in greater depth. Assessment is increasingly complicated with much more use of continuous assessment and assessment of achievements and progress where the criteria and the mark distributions are both very different from conventional examinations (such as projects, dissertations, shows and performance).
Increasingly different types of achievements are being assessed – involving for example both knowledge and skills – which simply cannot be added together in a meaningful way. The steering group concluded that there is a need to do justice to this wide range of experience by allowing a wider recognition of achievement instead of spending considerable time and effort attempting to fit these into a single summative judgement."
Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group final report
What are the common problems?
They are complex. Assessing learning is inevitably difficult and becomes more so when teachers try to innovate against frameworks and structures that may be no longer fit for purpose. Here we focus on some of the issues that you can address by following the resources and good practice in this guide.
Too much emphasis on final grades
The persistence of a single summative judgement drives both students and staff towards a fixation with the final grade and tactical behaviours to the detriment of broader and deeper learning. The emphasis on marking and grading suggests a view of assessment as an instrument of measurement rather than a means of supporting learning.
Assessing the right things
Assessment must be valid and reliable but many experts believe that validity is compromised by increasingly simpler approaches to reliability. The quest for reliability drives teachers to assess small and unambiguous chunks of learning rather than attempting to address more complex issues of knowledge.
Teachers may combine marks in a way that fails to represent the different types of learning outcome achieved through each individual component. Different types of assessment format like coursework compared to examinations and different disciplinary customs and practices may distort marks. Many experts question whether it's possible to distinguish the quality of work to a precision of one percentage point.
In the sections on assessment design and assessment patterning and scheduling we look at the assessment effectiveness of programme level learning outcomes and aligning individual assignments so that students get the practice they need to build confidence and take on increasingly complex tasks.
Standards are only useful when they are valid and understood. Issues have been identified with how standards are communicated and understood by students and staff. We consider this in the sections on the setting and supporting elements of the lifecycle, and suggest some useful approaches to staff development in the section on developing academic practice.
The process of making academic judgement requires a certain amount of tacit knowledge. In the sections on feedback and feed forward and on peer review we look at creating the conditions for dialogue that enables students to better understand the process of making academic judgements.
Assessing collaborative assignments
Assessing group work raises particular issues of fairness and standards. In general a group has more resources and overall elapsed time at their disposal so should produce better work against the same assignment topic than an individual could. In practice, however, groups tend to work on more complex tasks than the assignments intended for individual study.
Group size and diversity also has an impact on how easy or difficult the students may find it to work together. All of these factors must be taken into account when evaluating group work and determining its equivalence to other types of assignment. We offer guidance on this in the section on assessing group work.
A diverse student population has diverse learning needs and some students may be unable to take particular assignments due to various types of disability. We look at the issue of alternative formats and equivalence in the section on inclusive assessment.
Relevance to employment skills
In spite of the continued emphasis employers place on degree classifications in particular, it's unlikely that a single summative judgement will prove helpful to employers when selecting future members of their workforce. In the section on employability and assessment we look at how students can be helped to develop and evidence a range of transferable skills.
How might we use technology and what are the benefits?
It can foster clarity and transparency about the curriculum so that those with overall responsibility for programme design have a clear overview of the learning outcomes and assessment methods for different courses. This in itself can facilitate dialogue that leads to sharing good practice and effective approaches.
Digital storage of marks and feedback can simplify analysis to identify anomalies. It can also permit auditing and profiling of feedback to support staff development.
Digital records of learning outcomes can produce richer student achievement evidence such as the diploma supplement and higher education achievement record (HEAR) which students can show to potential employers.
Technologies such as e-portfolios allow students to build up a rich picture of their skills and achievements when seeking employment. They can then take these forward to support continuous professional development throughout their working lives.
Technology can also be used to allow students a range of alternative formats for tackling an assignment. This choice may encourage creativity, better engagement and support students who are unable to complete particular forms of assignment due to a disability.
How does quality assurance and standards relate to the lifecycle?
This is a theme that runs throughout. There will be formal programme and module approval processes at the specifying stage and detailed definition of marking and grading approaches at the setting stage.
At the marking and production of feedback stage, you may implement quality assurance measures such as second marking and moderation.
Verification and validation of marks will take place during the recording grades stage. The reflecting stage involves considering programme and module outcomes against other comparators to see whether improvements can be made for the future.
What resources can help?
- The Quality Assurance Agency's guide outlines the role of assessment in safeguarding academic standards
- The Burgess Group's final report discusses the issues around summative assessment in higher education
- In 2007 a group of leading academics brought together by the Assessment Standards Knowledge exchange (ASKe) produced 'assessment standards: a manifesto for change' which underpins the Higher Education Academy's framework for transforming assessment in HE.