What we know: Designing courses for learning: Assessment is a very powerful context that can affect intentions

The ‘What we know’ theories are going to be published here as a series of blog posts over the coming weeks but are also available now collected as a free eBook from the OCSLD shop, where there are now four titles available. Our new book, Assessment Literacy: The Foundation for Improving Student Learning is available in paperback and kindle formats

Assessment is a very powerful context that can affect intentions

What do we know?

For many students, assessment is the most powerful ‘driver’ and can significantly influence their learning behaviour, for good or bad.  For example, an assessment regime that is heavily dependent on end-of-course exams, where it is relatively easy to predict the questions and model answers can be learnt by rote is likely to encourage undesirable learning behaviours. There is little incentive to study until the end of the course, or to consider the breadth of the subject matter covered, and even the possibility of cheating by using an answer created by someone else.  And the assessment fails to reliably assess whether the material is actually understood, or the skills of the student developed (other than the ability to memorise).  On the other hand, a course where various tasks are required as the course progresses, compiled into a portfolio which can be taken into the exam room where new material (e.g. new data, or a new scenario) is also provided and the student has to undertake a unique task, based on the new material (but relating it to and selecting from their portfolio), is likely to encourage greater time on task, breadth in the material studied – and act as a valid assessment of the students’ knowledge and skills.

Feedback has the capacity to be the most significant and important part of the assessment cycle in terms of affecting further learning and student achievement; but unfortunately, current feedback practices are frequently judged by the students to be unhelpful and inadequate.  In order for feedback to be effective, there are three requisite conditions – motive, opportunity and means.  The student needs to be motivated to engage with the feedback, and this is more likely if they can see they will have the opportunity to put the feedback into practice (and less likely if the feedback is accompanied by a mark/grade, which will become their main, and possibly only, focus of attention).  They also need the means (help, support, guidance) to address their shortcomings.

It has further been argued that feedback will be more effective if it is part of a systematic approach to bring the students into the community of assessment practice through the pro-active development of ‘assessment literacy’.  This should be done through engaging students in dialogue about assessment at every stage of the assessment cycle – through activities such as marking exercises, and self and peer-assessment.  Teachers who demonstrate how they mark written assignments can also have a powerful effect on how students write later assignments.  Providing students with exemplars of previous good work also helps.


Implications for improving student learning

Assessment has already featured in a number of the theories covered above:

● It can focus the students’ attention and ensure time on task

● It can set high expectations

● But if is too threatening and anxiety provoking it may have a negative effect

● Tasks can help to stimulate intrinsic motivation if they are interesting and can be seen to be relevant to the student (and possibly provide opportunities for student choice)

● They can also challenge beliefs about learning and knowledge (e.g. the task of ‘weighing up’ two different paradigmatic viewpoints)

In addition, there needs to be an explicit intention to develop the skills of self and peer-assessment as graduate outcomes in their own right, through on-going dialogue and engagement in the assessment process, to develop the students from novice to expert within the community of assessment practice.


Further reading

Price, M. et al (2012) Assessment Literacy: the foundation for improving student learning, Oxford: OCSLD

Kirkwood, A. & Price, L. (2008) Assessment and student learning: a fundamental relationship and the role of information and communication technologies. Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 23 (1), 5-16


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About the author

Chris Rust

Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, Oxford Brookes University. Before retiring in September, 2014, after over 25 years at Brookes, Chris had been Associate Dean (Academic Policy). Previously, for ten years, he was Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD), and Deputy Director of the Human Resource Directorate. Between 2005 – 2010 he was also a Deputy Director for two Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning – ASKe (Assessment Standards Knowledge Exchange) and the Reinvention Centre for undergraduate research (led by Warwick University).

In OCSLD, with thirteen colleagues, he helped to provide both staff and educational development support to the University’s academic Faculties and support Directorates for 23 years. For six years he was Course Leader for the University’s initial training course for new teaching staff.

He achieved a PhD by publication in 2003 and became a professor in March, 2010.

He has researched and published on a range of issues including:

  • the experiences of new teachers in HE
  • the positive effects of supplemental instruction
  • ways of diversifying assessment
  • improving student performance through engagement in the marking process
  • the effectiveness of workshops as a method of staff development.

Mostly he has focused on researching and writing about assessment, including:  improving student learning through active engagement with assessment feedback, and the significance of both explicit articulation and socialisation processes in improving students’ understanding of assessment requirements and assessment feedback.

He is also interested in the design, development and use of social learning space in universities, as well as the development of research-based learning in the undergraduate curriculum, including its potential effect on university organization.

In the 90s he contributed to the design and delivery of a national programme of staff development in higher education on the issue of teaching more students and over the years has run numerous workshops around the country and internationally on a range of issues including teaching large classes, developing assessment strategies, and engaging students with assessment and feedback.

Most recently he has been involved in a research project into the effectiveness of the external examiner system and how it might be improved

He has been a Fellow of the RSA, a Senior Fellow of SEDA (Staff and Educational Development Association) and was one of the first fourteen Senior Fellows of the UK Higher Education Academy, for whom he was also an accreditor.

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