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Assessment: what’s the point?

"I think most people, deep down, accept that assessment in higher education is not really fit for purpose any more."

Neil Morris

Professor Neil Morris is chair of educational technology, innovation and change in the School of Education and the dean of digital education at the University of Leeds.

“When I see students writing 2,000-word coursework essays on topics that they're never going to use in a professional setting, I really do wonder what the point is. I think that a lot of academics, deep down, accept that the majority of the current assessment practices used in higher education are not really fit for purpose.”

Authentic assessment

The University of Leeds recently developed expectations about assessment and feedback, characterised by a set of attributes: validity, inclusivity and sensitivity; reliability; relevance/applicability; transparency; readiness; informative; and partnership.

In addition, assessment must also be delivered for specific purposes, contextualised, and reflect the internal and external influences that apply at the level of the programme, discipline and institution.

Neil teaches a fully online 'digital learning in practice' module on a digital education masters programme and has used the Leeds assessment and feedback expectations to design an authentic form of assessment for his course. As his students are based all over the world, they are taught and assessed digitally.

They tend to be working professionals, such as learning technologists or teachers in primary, secondary or higher education, all studying the master's programme alongside their work. Neil was keen that the module assessment be directly related to the students’ practice in a way that would enrich their work and professional context. So, four years ago, he instituted three principles.

Three principles

The first was that the students would choose the topic of their assessment themselves from the subjects covered in the module, such as open educational resources, mobile learning, learning analytics, MOOCs and digital strategy. That was already a step away from the norm.

The second principle was group working. Gone is the lone scholar typing out a coursework essay to get a grade – geographically separated students have to form groups of three and overcome the challenges of team-working at a distance, something very familiar to many professionals but which requires practical, digital literacy skills and an understanding of team dynamics.

The third principle was that the students must create a publicly available, multi-modal web resource that would be useful after the module had finished – generally in the form of a WordPress site that incorporates text, audio and video.

In doing that, and working equally on it in their teams of three, the students learn skills of content creation, finding and evaluating external third party resources and Creative Commons licensing.

A joy to mark

The outcome has been overwhelmingly positive.

For Neil, the process meets all the challenges of authentic assessment. “They're an absolute joy to mark – visually interesting, very well researched, very well evidenced and something I can use afterwards,” he says.

“I often showcase these websites on my own Twitter feed, I use them in presentations and in research, and I direct other students who are interested in the topic to them. They have legacy and the students themselves take that resource back into their employment and use it in their professional practice – or with potential employers if they're looking to move jobs or to upskill.”

And the students? “At first, they are horrified by the whole idea!” Neil laughs. “They give me quite a hard time about it because they don’t want to work in a team and rely on others – especially when they are in China and their team-mates are in Turkey and India. I have a lot of resources on the virtual learning environment that help them to get over that and I keep reminding them this is authentic, team-based and very much like working life.

"Every year, by the end, they always say, ‘I'm so glad I did that, I learned so much about team-working and communicating with other people and it was really enjoyable.’ Every year they amaze me with the quality of their work but also the way that they overcome geographic and time barriers, using a whole range of different communication tools to keep in touch with each other, to manage their work, to share resources between themselves.”

Difficult questions

So why is this kind of assessment not more widespread? Neil believes that a lack of digital confidence and competence in the academic community, along with a fear of disrupting a system that has been in place for a long time, are both key factors. There are also concerns around ‘upsetting’ students who find the prospect of this kind of authentic assessment uncomfortable.

"I do think people often worry about group work because the prevailing sentiment is that group work is difficult to manage and that students don't like it. And that is true, students don't like group work, but I don’t think that's a reason not to do it.

“I think what we need to do is provide a structured and supportive environment for students to excel at group work because just saying ‘they don't like it so we're not going to do it’ is not going to help them when they're in employment.”

Neil argues that the sector needs to be asking itself difficult questions about what purpose current assessment approaches serve.

Are they meeting learning outcomes? If so, are those purely knowledge-based outcomes still fit for purpose in a digital age when employers are calling for graduates with a better mix of knowledge, skill and behaviour outcomes?