Flexibility in Assessment Design

By Brian Irwin, Academic Innovation

At a conference I attended earlier this year there was some discussion, led by Cath Ellis and Sue Foley from Huddersfield, around the concept of flexibility in the assessment process.  I thought this was an interesting discussion and worth contributing some thoughts about it to this wider forum.  There were five main parts of the process identified where flexibility could be integrated: topic, format, criteria, timescale and result.

With topic, students are given flexibility in terms of what the assessment content is. Topic is the part of the assessment process where the most flexibility exists in actual practice.  Students are often given a choice of topics for their assessments.  In some cases the topic can be anything relevant that the student wants, provided it is discussed with the tutor.

Flexibility in format is about allowing students to create their work in various styles or mediums.  For instance, students might have the choice between writing an essay or doing a practical report.  Format also includes whether something is a written piece, a web page or a video.  Students might have a choice of set tasks where they can choose which they prefer, or more open-ended flexibility could be given.  In a more open-ended situation, students could choose whatever format they preferred, provided they could satisfy the assessment criteria with them.  Flexibility in format provides the advantage of allowing students to choose the format that will best allow them to demonstrate their learning.  In the case of students with disabilities, such as dyslexia, studies have shown that a single format such as a fixed exam or essay can disadvantage them, despite having additional time.

Some lecturers have allowed students to negotiate assessment criteria for their own assessments, or at least specify some of them.  Engaging students in shaping assessment criteria has been suggested in the literature as a way of encouraging understanding of criteria, an area students often have trouble with.  Through engagement with construction of criteria, students can learn more about tutor-constructed criteria and how to meet them.  Many tutors may find adding flexibility to the process of setting assessment criteria challenging, as the setting of assessment criteria is normally part of the tutor’s role as assessor.

Typically assessments have set deadlines, with little flexibility around hand-in dates or timescales for completing work.  The exception to this is where extenuating circumstances arise, or where additional time is granted due to a learning contract. However this raises the question of why deadlines are necessary in the assessment process.  There is a general recognition that people do not all learn in the same way nor at the same speed for everything.  If our students are learning, is it important that they are learning within a specific time constraint?  One option besides having completely open hand-in dates, which could cause issues around scheduling marking time for tutors, is to have multiple hand-in dates which students can choose from.  Flexibility in timelines allows students to learn at their own pace, and encourages them to take responsibility for planning their own learning and assessments.  Problems where students face assessment overload at the end of a semester could be avoided, as students could schedule their assessments in a timeline that makes sense for their lives.

Lastly, there is an opportunity for increased flexibility in negotiating assessment results.  Peer and self assessment are already used at the University as a way to encourage students to engage with the assessment process and come to a better understanding of what is a good standard of work.  This process of getting students to engage with criteria can be extended to encouraging students to negotiate the result of their assessment.  If students can find evidence of how they met specific criteria to show to the lecturer, then grades could be reconsidered.  At the very least those students who engage in the process will have examined the criteria and reviewed their work in detail, which should help them learn for future assessments.

Technology has a role to play in the above processes and in providing the flexibility to do them.  For instance, flexibility in timescales could be facilitated by students specifying when they want to hand-in work, and electronic submission allows them to do so even if the university is shut.  Flexibility in selecting the assessment format would be much more difficult without recent technologies: imagine the effort and equipment needed to view a video cassette of student work compared to if that video is available online.  Electronic tools could also be used to facilitate the process of determining criteria and negotiating the results.

Flexibility in format is something Stuart Hepplestone and I are exploring in more depth in a paper. From my perspective this is the least challenging type of flexibility, in terms of challenging the traditional power model of tutor-student in the assessment process.  Adding flexibility to timescales present a challenge to the student lifespan and how we think about engagement in formal education.  Setting criteria and determining results flexibly is a challenge to the traditional roles of staff and students in the assessment process.  Students themselves may not be initially responsive to this type of flexibility.  In my personal experience as a student, when offered the chance to set my own additional criteria, I have not done so.  However, format flexibility is less of a challenge to this model as it (similarly to having flexibility in topic choice) involves changing student practice at the time of creating the assessment, which is already seen as the student’s role in the assessment process.  In this way format and topic flexibility can be seen as starting points for developing additional flexibility into the assessment process, as they do not challenge the power structures of assessment.

Of course there are concerns which should be addressed around adding flexibility in these ways.  For instance, is it acceptable for a student to leave University never having written a paper, but just having made videos for their assessments?  I’ll leave the concerns to be dealt with more fully elsewhere, but I think it is important to consider balance in assessments.  The true goal of increasing flexibility is really about increasing student engagement and power in the assessment process, which should help ensure the type of ideal, engaged learners we strive for.

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