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Making assessment and feedback inclusive

Assessment and feedback is arguably the aspect of the university experience about which students (and staff) feel most anxious and vulnerable, and dissatisfaction in this area is repeatedly expressed in National Student Survey results across the sector.  It's also an important aspect to get right in terms of inclusivity and fairness.

'Students can escape bad teaching but they cannot escape bad assessment.' (David Boud, 1995)

Assessment for learning

The most common weaknesses identified with current assessment practice include:

  • overload of students and staff;
  • insufficient time for students to do the assignments;
  • too many assignments with the same deadline;
  • overuse of one mode of assessment such as written examinations, essays or closed problems;
  • adopting as a rule of thumb unproven systems of equivalence, such as a three-hour paper being “equivalent” to a 3000-word assignment;
  • difficulty in assessing independent critical thinking, decision-making and creativity;
  • insistence on high reliability resulting in inadequately represented/assessed curriculum areas, especially originality of thought amongst students;
  • unclear assessment briefs or assessment criteria that means students don't understand what is expected of them;
  • inadequate or superficial feedback provided to students (Brown, 2001; Elton and Johnson, 2002; Mutch and Brown, 2001)

List developed from a key resource: Waterfield, J. and West, B. (2006) Inclusive Assessment in Higher Education: A Resource for Change University of Plymouth [pdf]

  • Reduce the number of summative assessments and increase the amount of formative assessments.  
  • Consider alternative assessment methods, including open book exams, shorter exams, essay/report-based assignments that address the same (or more appropriate) learning outcomes as existing assessment. 
  • Ensure that assessment is aligned to learning outcomes and teaching and learning methods (constructive alignment). 
  • Check that there is a varied diet of assessment at programme-level.  However, do not use too many different and unfamiliar types of assessment that can result in students feeling anxious and exhausted by working out each time what is expected of them and how to perform.
  • Prepare students for assessment. For example, provide opportunity to discuss and/or practise new formats.  Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine creates opportunity for a mock version of each new type pf assessment. 
  • Monitor scheduling of assessment at programme-level to avoid bunching of assessment deadlines.
  • For coursework consider using staged assessment design, with opportunity for formative feedback, including peer and self-assessment on draft versions.
  • Design into the module on-going formative assessment and feedback that students can feed forward to future learning and assessment.
  • Ensure transparency in terms of what’s expected and how it’s going to be assessed, through provision of:
    • assessment criteria
    • marking scheme
    • exemplars/model answers
    • information about weighting
    Examples of assessment criteria, grade descriptors and marking schemes used at Imperial

One way to increase the inclusivity of assessment is to offer choice, but this can be challenging to manage so needs careful thought in order to ensure fairness for all students and teaching staff.

The Quick guide to implementing assessment choice [pdf] developed from the Engineering Subject Centre Mini-Project: 'Assessment Choice Case Study' offers the following advice:

  1. “Choose a mixture of assessment methods to suit the module/student cohort. Carefully think through each assessment to limit excessive marking.
  2. Consider parity of each method.
  3. Carefully explain the methodologies to the group at the start of the module and, where possible, provide students with examples of each of the proposed methods.
  4. Provide students with an evaluation form (see Appendix 2) that encourages reflection on their chosen method of assessment.
  5. Provide a cut-off date at which selected choice is frozen, for example midway through the module.

Collaborate with other departments that can contribute in some way towards supporting the module (i.e: redistribute the resources saved by the disability department by not having to make any assessment provisions)”

(Easterbrook, Parker & Waterfield, 2006: p11).

Examples of assessment choice at Imperial include:
  • Students choosing journal articles they are interested in to present to peers at journal club or to critically appraise for an written assignment.  Students are then given access to all student-selected articles using Leganto reading lists.
  • Students choose the focus of their Year 3 or MSc projects.
  • Students choose from a range of essay titles.
  • Students choose from optional modules that have different assessment methods (e.g. exams or coursework). 
  • Students are asked to choose what aspects of their work they would like to receive feedback on. 

Could your programme offer more assessment choice? See Activity: Designing choice into your assessment

  • Does the assessment task allow all students to demonstrate achievement of the programme-level and module-level intended learning outcomes (ILOs)?
    • Are we assessing anything that isn’t captured in the ILOs or missing rewarding any learning that is?
    • How are ILOs assessed in other modules and at what point in the year? 
      You may find it useful to use this Assessment mapping tool [pdf]
  • Are there an appropriate number and range of assessment methods at each level?
  • Does this range of assessment methods enable all students to demonstrate their ability to achieve the learning outcomes? 
  • Is the language of the assessment task inclusive?  i.e. Do students understand what they are being asked to do?
  • Do the assessment criteria align with the learning outcomes in terms of focus and expected level?
  • Are students formatively assessed in this module and how does this relate to the summative assessment?
  • How well do students think this assessment supports and enables them to demonstrate their learning?
  • Does the assessment recognise and reward process as well as outcome? e.g. Are marks awarded for teamworking and/or observed lab-based/clinical-based practice?
  • Is your feedback comprehensible and does it help the student to develop further, including their ability to self-assess?
  • Are students given an opportunity and need to make use of their feedback in future learning?