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Introduction to assessment and feedback

Why is assessment and feedback important?

'Nothing we do to, or for our students is more important than our assessment of their work and the feedback we give them on it. The results of our assessment influence students for the rest of their lives...' Race, Brown and Smith (2005)

This quote from Race Brown and Smith (2005) illustrates well why assessment and feedback are important for students. It is essential for learning and an indication of success (or its lack). It is for those reasons that assessment evokes a lot of strong emotions amongst students and the level of dissatisfaction with this area of their university experience can be quite high. This is reflected in the NSS scores which year by year attract lowest scores at Imperial but also across the HE sector in terms of assessment and feedback.

Introduction to assessment and feedback

There are two main types of assessment linked to two broad purposes of assessment: formative and summative.

Summative assessment, also known as assessment of learning, “involves making judgements about students’ summative achievements for purposes of selection and certification and it also acts as a focus for accountability and certification” (Bloxham & Boyd 2007:15). It is therefore high stakes and involves evaluating student effort at the end of a course or a learning unit against a set of criteria and results in awarding a grade that counts towards their final classification. This links summative assessment to quality assurance processes and distinguishing a good performance from a bad one.

Formative assessment, also known as assessment for learning, “provides information about student achievement which allows teaching and learning activities to be changed in response to the needs of the learner and recognises the huge benefits that feedback can have on learning” (Bloxham & Boyd 2007:15). It therefore allows teachers to monitor students and intervene when necessary but also offers students opportunities to develop their own self assessment skills and therefore monitor themselves through being better able to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses. Formative assessment is considered to be low stakes as it is not attached to a grade but rather an opportunity to learn and is a vehicle for ongoing feedback.

A well designed assessment diet should have a mix of formative and summative assessment with emphasis given to formative stages. Find out more about principles of assessment design.

Feedback is essential for student learning as it provides them with important information about their current performance and how to improve in the future. Carless (2015, p.192) defines feedback as:

'A dialogic process in which learners make sense of information from varied sources and use it to enhance the quality of their work or learning strategies'

This definition marks an important shift in thinking about feedback not in terms of the product that is given to the students but more of a process, a conversation, a dialogue between staff and students. This means that feedback, especially formative, does not necessarily have to come from the teacher but can be generated by their peers and also by themselves through self assessment.

 There are several purposes of feedback. Gibbs and Simpson enumerate the following:

  • correct errors;
  • develop understanding through explanations;
  • generate more learning by suggesting further specific study tasks;
  • promote the development of generic skills by focusing on the evidence of the use of skills rather than on the content;
  • promote meta-cognition by encouraging students' reflection and awareness of learning processes involved in the assignment;
  • encourage students to continue studying.

(Gibbs and Simpson, 2005, p.19-20)

Carless, D. (2015) Excellence in university assessment: learning from award-winning practice. London: Routledge

Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2005) Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, pp.3-31

Race, P. Brown, S. and Smith, B. (2005) 500 Tips on assessment: 2nd edition, London: Routledge.