First class: how assessment can enhance student learning

By Sally Brown –

Too many universities pay insufficient attention to assessment: usually the mechanics are adequately managed, but the purposes and practices are less well thought-through, relying on ‘tried and tested’ approaches, which in reality are neither.

‘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 and careers’.[1]

Assessment in higher education can be a powerful force, either to help students make sense of their learning, or conversely to make it a negative and demoralising experience. As Boud suggests:

“Students can escape bad teaching: they can’t escape bad assessment”.[2]

Some would even say that our current assessment system is broken, that nothing less than a radical overhaul can save it from falling into total disrepute. In many universities, time-consuming and expensive complaints often centre on student dissatisfaction with what are sometimes, in truth, poor or even reprehensible university assessment practices. More students and their (fee-paying) parents are taking universities to court, questioning not just the fair implementation of assessment processes, but also the academic judgments on which grades are based.

So how can we use assessment as a force to positively enhance the student experience? We can direct students’ learning behaviours by designing and implementing better assessment. Students often treat marks like money:

“How much is it worth? How much time should I spend on this?”

So if we want to steer their behaviour towards deeper learning approaches, we need to improve assignments.

If we really want students to leave everything to the last minute, cut-and-paste, plagiarise and regurgitate memorised material, we should set them tasks that reward such behaviour (as many off-the-shelf essay and exam questions do), but if we want them to genuinely engage with assessment, we must offer assignments that require incremental submission of work, feature personal research and demonstrate original thinking, while applying theory to practice in authentic contexts.

Assignments should model the practices that graduates will need in real life, demonstrating their skills as historians, scientists or health practitioners, rather than over-relying on essays, where ‘writing about’ is used as a proxy for ‘knowing’. Too often we assess what is easy to assess rather than focusing on the heart of what students need to know and do.[3]

The following are my evidence-based observations which could help guide improvements in assessment practice:

Assessment should be an integral part of the learning process

There have been recent moves away from the expectation that assessment is (just) of learning to agreeing that assessment is integral to learning.[4] Well designed assignments require students to both demonstrate their competences and to apply what they have learned to subject-relevant contexts.

Good feedback is essential to student learning

Students benefit from (and expect) timely feedback: the longer students have to wait to get work back, the less likely it is that they will make constructive use of lecturers’ comments. This implies that work should be returned very quickly, certainly no more than three working weeks after submission, while the students still care and while there is still time for them to act upon advice.[5]

If we want to set good study patterns, we need to design assignments early in the first year of study that encourage positive learning behaviours

Well-integrated, authentic assessment in the first year that includes a variety of early ‘low stakes’ assessed tasks can energise and motivate students. The first half of the first semester of the first year is our best opportunity to meaningfully engage them.[6] Early assignments should improve information literacy (crucially including the ability to identify which are trustworthy web-derived texts ), effective referencing of sources, appropriate academic conduct (many plagiarists, who readily download music and images without a thought for copyright, don’t understand the concept of acknowledging sources) and conventions of academic writing (for example, to what extent is a passive third-person voice required?). Too little, too much or the wrong kind of assessment can impact negatively, particularly on students already at risk of failure, withdrawal or underperformance.

Diverse assessment methods and approaches can benefit all students

Most universities use three dominant assessment methods: unseen, time-constrained exams, reports and essays. But if we over-use a small subset of available methods, the same students are disadvantaged time and time again. If instead we offer a mixed diet, students who excel at oral presentations, essay writing, problem solving, group work and so on, can all have their place in the sun.

International students studying in a global environment are likely to need inducting into local assessment practices

There are significant variations between systems, for example in the size and scope of assignments, the amount of oral assessment used (common in Scandinavia and the Netherlands), the level or formality expected in written work, the extent to which assessed group work is acceptable (not permitted in Denmark) and the extent to which Multiple Choice Tests are used.[7] In a competitive international HE market, we ignore at our peril the significant differences in assessment expectations of international students.

We massively under-use technologies that deliver assessments and manage the results

Many nations make much wider use than the UK of the increasingly sophisticated computer-based methods for removing the drudgery of routine marking. A whole range of question types can be used, including menu-driven drag-and-drop questions, interactive maps, graphs, dashboards and free-text responses, all of which go well beyond Multiple-Choice questions.

Individual routes through computer-based assessment programmes can be part of the learning process, with students being given guidance on why right or wrong answers are so, and being given further chances to answer parallel questions until learning is demonstrated. This can be a very cost-effective way of personalising learning.

Many are excited by the potential for computer assessment of essays and other forms of free text. While some claim this is already possible, I believe that currently we can only really recognise word strings, but developing work on computer-based parsing language can determine whether those word strings appear in grammatical sentences. Today, the best we can do is approximate assessment of short answer questions, but this is a new technological field and one that is developing fast.[8]

Technologies are also invaluable for managing personal data: for example, most universities now support e-Portfolios to enable students to provide flexible and accessible evidence of their employability competences, developed both within the university setting and elsewhere, including volunteering, university societies, and part-time work.[9]

At the same time, efficient and innovative data management systems can help compile and correlate marks, link them to the learning outcomes in course documentation, map them to quality assurance benchmarks, as well as to professional and subject body requirements, and enable individual student progression to be tracked and recorded.[10]


I predict that universities of the future will be less concerned about content delivery, since students can access diverse information ubiquitously, and will focus more closely on the recognition and accreditation of learning, wherever that might have taken place (in the workplace, in different national contexts and using open source materials). This means that we need to concentrate more strongly on supporting student engagement with learning, and I argue that the strongest locus of this is through improving assessment.

Sally Brown is Emeritus Professor at Leeds Metropolitan University where she was Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic), Adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland and Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth.

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

[2] Boud, D. (1995) Enhancing learning through self-assessment London: Routledge.

[3] John Biggs’ work on ‘constructive alignment’ emphasises the importance of clarifying at the outset what students need to know and be able to do, and then designing curriculum delivery and assessment around this. See Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Maidenhead: SRHE & Open University Press).

[4] See Biggs, J. (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University (Maidenhead: SRHE & Open University Press).

[5] Nicol, D. J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, Vol 31(2), 199-218

[6] See Yorke, M. (1999) Leaving Early: Undergraduate Non-completion in Higher Education, London: Routledge.

[7] See for example chapter 5 in Jones, E. and Brown, S. (2007) Internationalising higher education, London: Routledge, and Ryan, J. (2000) A Guide to Teaching International Students Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

[8] See Guest, E. and Brown, S., (2007) A new method for parsing student text to support computer assisted assessment of free text answers, in: Khandia, F. (ed.) 11th CAA International Computer Assisted Conference: Proceedings of the Conference on 10th & 11th July 2007 at Loughborough University, Loughborough, pp. 223-236.

[9] JISC (2010) Effective Assessment in a Digital Age HEFCE Bristol provides information about HEIs using e-Portfolios and many useful examples of how assessment can be supported through technologies

[10] See

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