Preparing assessments in the context of pandemic

There has been some excellent new work on assessment and feedback in recent months, including the freely available ‘On Your Marks: Learner-Focused Feedback Practices and Feedback Literacies’ and new resources and ideas from Professors Kay Sambell and Sally Brown. We’ve seen mainstream and specialist media asking questions around the wisdom of relying too heavily on examinations, and debate about assessment has been played out across society – I heard it going on between parents in the fridge aisle of the local supermarket.

Working closely with staff and students over the last six months has prompted me to consider which assessment principles should be foregrounded to assist in the context of COVID. It’s more important than ever that our assessment approaches are practical, manageable and flexible in light of the operational reality i.e. in the context of inconsistent attendance due to students isolating, possible lockdowns, and short-notice switches in the mode of teaching. It’s clearly still important to enact effective practices e.g. supporting feedback literacies, scaffolding students’ internal conversation around feedback, bringing about authentic, meaningful assessment opportunities and ensuring good old constructive alignment is in place. Here though, I have tried to take what is known about effective assessment design and consider what it may mean in the specific context of the current COVID pandemic as I (and we) prepare for the next academic year. This is not at all exhaustive, it’s a summary note of some points that may be useful to add to the mix of assessment considerations.

  1. As we set assessments, be anticipatory and don’t define assignments to the point where we write out easy flexibility. In the event of lockdowns or other unforeseen circumstances we need the option to adapt the brief without an unnecessary, time consuming paper exercises. By example, if we want students to offer a presentation then offer choice on how this is done, or consider allowing students themselves to define exactly how they will present. Being anticipatory is a well-established principle for inclusivity and accessibility (see Thomas and May, 2010); just having the foresight to discuss and imagine the pitfalls of our assessment designs in the context of COVID may save us an awful lot of effort and change in the current context too.
  2. Focus on assessment literacies for all students. As we return to the new term, students from all years of study may well be out of practice with assessment activity. It may be helpful, kind, time-saving and productive to provide plenty of early support to re-introduce assessment e.g. exemplars to strengthen conceptual understanding, practise opportunities, opportunities for low stakes feedback, active engagement with assessment criteria etc. Technology can help a great deal with this support if it needs to be undertaken in a socially distant manner e.g. screencast assessment walk through videos, online FAQ’s built up as questions come in, working in groups or teams for mutual feedback, or online asynchronous exemplars workshops.
  3. Be kind to ourselves and do not generate unnecessary, unproductive marking activity. No-one in HE has been short of things to do and staff need to stay well and focus attention on interventions and activities that make the biggest impact. It always puzzles me when colleagues ask students to produce unnecessarily lengthy pieces of work and then complain about the marking load, adding that students don’t read the feedback that has taken hours to craft. We should consider paring back any unnecessarily long assessments. This is not watering down: Concise presentation is an essential and hard to achieve skill that needs practise. Concise writing is a skill for the moment (who has time to read unnecessary tomes?). For our own wellbeing, to preserve time for more effective engagement, and to help students to develop appropriate communication skills, consider reducing the wordcount/scope of assessments and reducing the volume of activity associated with summative assessment. Going back to first principles of constructive alignment can really help achieve this, just ask ‘how can my students demonstrate this outcome?’ and it probably doesn’t need 10,000 words!
  4. Be technology agnostic where possible. Students have variations in their personal technology, connectivity, and access to software. In the event of lockdowns, or the need to be off-campus, the institutional infrastructure may not be fully available to enable greater uniformity. It therefore makes sense to ensure that we are not asking students to use a specific piece of software. To allow flexibility it’s better to say create a movie rather than insist on students creating a movie using Final Cut Pro, or better to say analyse the data using online tools rather than analyse the data using NVivo and Snap. Allow and encourage students to work different tools and technologies – finding the tools that work for them is a great learning curve too.
  5. Consider the practicalities of students accessing essential support resources. We need to be careful to set up assessment activities that are possible for all students in the event of a change to teaching arrangements or physical location through a lockdown. At the simplest level this may mean making assessments that are not wedded to specific physical library resources. For others there may be bigger implications requiring some creative substitution of physical resources with virtual ones. By example, for a group of students who would ordinarily be working on a live environmental assessment in a particular geographic area – it may be possible to switch to a rich media offer and simulate the real world task with media by using a video case study which includes ‘visit’ footage supplemented by video interviews of the key stakeholders who would be available on the field visit. If stakeholders who would normally be involved in the visit can be available to take questions from students at a distance, even better! This is all very intensive though and instead it may also be possible for students to choose their own accessible case study (or topic, or research project etc) from their own locality to help produce their analysis. As we create assessment designs for the new year we may need to think creatively about ensuring access to supporting resources. This may mean tutors giving up some control, working with uncertainty, shifting the points within the assessment journey where feedback is helpful, and allowing learners to lead a little more than before.
  6. The case for authentic assessment is well rehearsed (see for example Stein, Isaacs and Andrews, 2004; Ashford-Rowe, Herrington and Brown, 2014; Villarroel et al., 2019) . This year there has been so much change in how society undertakes work, change in the shape of the future economy, change in the jobs that may come to thrive and those which may whither, and there may have been a shift in collective values (time will tell on all this!). Claiming authenticity at the moment may be more tricky than usual as the work-based reference points ‘out there’ which are often used to claim authenticity are changing rapidly. Amongst the context of wider change there may be a need to be explicit about the relevance of assessment activities to the real world as it is and now as it may become. To be knowingly authentic we may need openness about why an assessment is relevant now, in future and in the context of hyper-change. This may mean that we have to look at not just the task in hand, but also the meta-skills are work – we may explain, for example, that a research task is authentic and relevant not just in terms of the content that it may generate, or the skills of searching and summarising, but also because of its relevance for us to rehearse learning quickly and critically, with awareness of unreliable data sources and alternative explanations. It may also mean that we step back from the common view of authentic assessment as being about professional and real-world relevance, and draw more heavily on the notion of authentic assessment as something which is personally important (Stein, Isaacs and Andrews, 2004), “worthwhile, relevant and offering students some level of control” (Brown, 2019). More than ever, the ‘authentic’ in authentic assessment is not just about professional authenticity since the speed of change we find ourselves in may render a new degree of temporariness to all that. In practical terms – let’s make sure the assessments that we are making are valuable to students in relation to future professions, but also in relation to their discipline community and their real selves.
  7. When students are distributed, or in the event of individual isolation, it can be difficult to achieve closure on assessment work; how do I know when enough is enough? When is my work is good enough? It is important to build in socialisation around assessment within a peer group. This may usually be done through workshops, class discussions, FAQ’s, informal conversations and the surfacing of the tacit assumptions about what is needed. As we work in a blended, remote and changeable manner, it’s important to design in opportunities for assessment socialisation and even better, build a community in which assessment is discussed, requirements are transparent, and members feel comfortable to ask and seek support.
  8. In so many assessment situations I have seen tutors insist on an assessment format that they perceive to meet the learning outcome, when in reality there were other appropriate ways to meet the same outcome. A learning outcome of ‘explain’ could be met verbally, in a written form, using an infographic or a visual representation, or it could be an animation. I have long been a fan of allowing and encouraging students to have control over the way in which they represent their ideas, and now more than ever giving students choice in the media of their assessment may be practically helpful. Choice in media allows students to use the technology at their disposal, to work on aspects of their communication that they regard as useful and it piques interest and motivation. To help students stay engaged, and to improve accessibility particularly in the context of COVID where circumstances may change, it may be prudent to allow student choice in the media of their assessment (within guided parameters).
  9. To support such a level of flexibility it’s also important to create criteria which are applicable to the task as undertaken in any media. This simply means focusing the criteria on the heart of the activity rather than on other things which are about tutor preference. For example, in a ‘presentation’ I may assess the clarity of communication, the ability to make the complex simple, audience appropriateness, or the critical treatment of ideas, or the use of underpinning literature or research. All of these things transcend an online, face-to-face, synchronous or a-synchronous presentation, depending on what is possible later in the year. If I ask students to evaluate, I might focus on the balance of their argument, the level of criticality shown, the breadth of coverage in their evaluation and the use of literature to support judgements. These (meta- or overarching-) criteria can apply to any media format. By working with criteria that function across different media or precise formats, assessment can be super flexible but still totally valid.
  10. The current, unprecedented situation has thrown open so many questions that are relevant to learning for scientists, artists and social scientists. What is the nature of knowledge? Whose voice is being heard and why? Who is an expert? How do we hold experts to account? Why does it matter how ‘facts’ are created? How temporary is all that we know? We are living out the need for critical engagement with truth, facts and trustworthy sources, we are seeing the implications of vested interest and bias, and we are watching how science and society function together (sometimes it feels like science fiction). So many of these points and debates have rarely been lifted of the theoretical page in my experience and now we are living them every day – it may be time for teaching and assessment to get out of the safe space and make sure that the current tumultuous context is used as a backdrop to bring alive so many of these fundamental questions that often (too often) get stuffed in to a research methods module! In terms of assessment, the real world can be used to raise the bar of critical thinking (not quite sure how this will play out in my own teaching but I think it could be interesting).

None of this is especially new or revolutionary, but the list just highlights the need for i) empathy – remembering that students come back this term with a whole range of experiences, and they need kindness and support ii) flexibility – as we just don’t know how the year will pan out iii) regard for accessibility – especially with varied technologies and working circumstances vi) awareness of the changes in wider society and how they might impact the perception of their university experiences. Almost all of these points require a greater level of trust in students, a move to earlier feedback to negotiate aspects of assessment, and a focus on relational teaching and support which is highly personal.

Ashford-Rowe, K., Herrington, J. and Brown, C. (2014) ‘Establishing the critical elements that determine authentic assessment’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(2), pp. 205–222. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2013.819566.

Brown, S. (2019) ‘Using assessment and feedback to empower students and enhance their learning’, in Bryan, C. and Clegg, K. (eds) Innovative Assessment in Higher Education. 2nd edn. Oxford: Routledge, pp. 50–63.

Stein, S. J., Isaacs, G. and Andrews, T. (2004) ‘Incorporating authentic learning experiences within a university course’, Studies in Higher Education. Carfax Publishing Company, 29(2), pp. 239–258. doi: 10.1080/0307507042000190813.

Thomas, L. and May, H. (2010) Inclusive learning in higher education, Enhancing Teaching in Higher Education. yORK: HEA. doi: 10.4324/9780203416006_chapter_16.

Villarroel, V. et al. (2019) ‘Using principles of authentic assessment to redesign written examinations and tests’, Innovations in Education and Teaching International. Routledge, 00(00), pp. 1–12. doi: 10.1080/14703297.2018.1564882.

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