Assessment Still Lagging Amid Education's Evolution

The last part of the teaching puzzle.
James Thorley
Jul 8, 2022
Frequent feedback and failing safely are the ways forward for assessment.

So much has been said over the past two years with regards to education and learning in an increasingly digital environment, from the rapid shift to online learning through necessity, to future plans for a hybrid education landscape. But there is one critical area in need of further discussion, and that is assessment.

There is little debate as to the overwhelming benefits of hybrid learning; the chaos of the pandemic triggered a truly revolutionised approach to education. Pairing the benefits of online accessibility and digital tools that complement learning for students and educators with the irreplaceable positive impact of in-person instruction, is now tried and tested.

A final hurdle is assessment – how do we ensure that methods of assessment evolve to match the progress made in other areas while remaining fair and accurate? Now is the time to finesse what assessment with integrity means.

Assessment is expansive. It therefore shouldn’t be regarded as simply a standardised measure of grade or result that lacks personalised feedback to guide next steps. Rather, assessment design and delivery should encompass a wide variety of methods and supporting tools to evaluate and document the progress and needs of students, to provide a platform for ongoing learning and continual development.

Assessments uncover more data about student learning than grade performance alone. While alpha-numeric grades offer educators a way to benchmark student understanding, they offer little in terms of meaningful feedback and advice on next steps. When harnessed at its full potential, assessment can identify specific learning gaps to trigger additional teaching support or intervention.

The responsibility for fair and accurate assessment is in the hands of both student and educator. While students are expected to avoid short-cuts or cheating and prioritise their own learning, educators must design and deliver inclusive assessments that prioritise student learning needs. However, upholding assessment with integrity in the new world of hybrid learning requires careful design and implementation.

Nurturing students through course and exam design
There are numerous methods of ensuring course design nurtures effective and fair assessment. Setting learning objectives early by communicating clearly with students – on what they are learning and why – helps set expectations and make goals clear. So too does aligning course content to assessment – test what is taught and teach what is tested. Doing so models fairness and prepares students for assessment.

Modelling fairness and maintaining a focus on visibility and transparency not only nurtures assessment with integrity but encourages a baseline of ethical practices by students – the framework for which remains with them throughout their life.

Similarly, developing exam design in line with the goals of assessment is of equal importance. By providing frequent, low-stakes assessments, students are allowed to “fail safely” with transparency and the support of teacher intervention. Fostering inclusion of different learning styles with multiple exam formats, allows students to express different components of their understanding.

One of the most important components of effective assessment is feedback. Feedback is critical to learning. Research conducted by educational experts, such as Dr John Hattie (Professor of Education and Director of the Visible Learning Labs, University of Auckland), has helped define feedback and how it can be used to improve classroom learning.

In their Review of Educational Research, Dr John Hattie and Dr Helen Timplerley identify three forms of feedback – Where am I going?, How am I going?, and Where to next? However, a 2021 study demonstrates that “Where to next?” feedback leads to the greatest impact on student improvement.

It is critical to have feedback mechanisms embedded in the assessment process throughout a course that look ahead, rather than providing a stagnant, point-in-time view of student learning.

“Where to next?” feedback specifically, helps students understand what steps to take next to reach the learning goal, making feedback meaningful and actionable. Educators supported by course coordinators must consider incorporating this form of feedback and offering it on an ongoing basis, thereby allowing students the opportunity to continually improve.

Providing students with the opportunity to review and engage with such just-in-time feedback will result in students more likely to reach their learning goals.

We have witnessed a most incredible evolution in the education landscape over the last two years, with progress made on so many fronts. The next step is to ensure that methods of assessment evolve to match the progress in other areas. The cornerstone of success in education is the learning outcomes for students. These outcomes cannot be measured, or therefore celebrated, without assessment with integrity.

James Thorley is Regional Vice President, Asia Pacific at Turnitin, based in Melbourne.

Image by James Lach