Learnings & suggestions based on implementing diverse assessments – Lucy Ryland
Learnings and suggestions based on implementing diverse assessments in the foundation year at Warwick
By Lucy Ryland
Diverse assessments, sometimes known as ‘alternative assessments’, is a growing area of interest in higher education, and Warwick is no exception. As a member of the WIHEA Diverse Assessment Learning Circle, I delivered a presentation on my own practice in relation to diverse assessments. This triggered a discussion around how my collection of assessments could be expressed in terms of an ‘assessment strategy’. Here I highlight my rationale for diversifying assessment and reflect on my experiences with implementing a diverse assessment diet with international foundation students.
Diverse assessment can be defined as an assessment method “that is less familiar (to you and/or the students) and increases the range of assessments in your discipline” (O’Neill and Padden 2021:3). Interested in this concept and the potential benefits it could bring, in the 2021-22 academic year, as convener of three modules on the Warwick International Foundation Programme in Social Science, I used 11 different assessment methods with my group of students, and embedded choice into almost all of them.
Research suggests there are many potential benefits to adopting a diverse assessment strategy. I identified six advantages that I hoped to bring to my teaching and my students’ learning through this diversity.
- In some instances, diverse assessment was required in order for the intended learning outcomes of my modules to be assessed, to ensure the constructive alignment of my programme. One such ILO was that students should be able to “justify informed solutions to social science problems to a varied audience using a variety of media formats”. Diverse assessment methods of blog post writing, infographic design and film production were therefore appropriate methods to assess students’ attainment of this learning outcome.
- Using a variety of assessment methods, and embedding choice into students’ assessments, is argued by Bloxham and Boyd (2007:190) to enhance the inclusive nature of assessment. It enables students to pursue their own interests, preferences, and strengths. If students are always assessed using written, essay-style tasks, this will advantage students who are strong in the relevant skills, and disadvantage those whose skills and strengths lie in different areas. Therefore, including written assessments alongside oral presentations and more visual or creative methods of assessment is likely to make the students’ assessment diet more inclusive.
- Part of the purpose of higher education has to be to prepare students for life beyond studies, in the ‘real world’. There is therefore value in encouraging students to develop skills and knowledge that is going to help them pursue their future goals (Knight and Yorke 2003). A number of the different assessment methods I use, including blog writing, annotated bibliographies, case studies and research projects, are designed to be authentic, to use real world contexts and facilitate the growth of skills that the students may well need in their future studies and careers. They have a function beyond simply receiving a grade at the end of the process.
- In a similar vein, evidence suggests that the ‘traditional’ examination type assessment has limited value in terms of developing students’ skills rather than focusing on simple knowledge recall (Dunn et al. 2004; Bloxham and Boyd 2007:195). It is also apparent that more traditional timed examinations induce high levels of stress in students, and this can limit how effectively they can really show their full capability. Conversely, it may be the case that diverse assessments, that are more inclusive and authentic, are less stressful for students and enable them to perform to the best of their ability (Hong-Meng Tai et al. 2022:6).
- Preparing and submitting the same type of assessment on multiple occasions can be monotonous for students, especially in an intense year of study and assessment. Introducing variety and authenticity into the assessments can enhance students’ motivations to complete them: they can do something different, something new and relevant for them (Bloxham and Boyd 2007:191; Struyven et al. 2005). There is also motivation for the teacher in reviewing and marking a variety of assessment types rather than reading multiple 2000-word essays throughout the year.
- Finally, diverse assessments open many opportunities for more peer to peer and group learning experiences, which have value in themselves. Compared to a simple essay or exam, adding comments to each other’s blog posts, acting as the audience for each other’s presentations, watching each other’s film productions, and collaborating in case study assessments, provide numerous opportunities for students to learn from each other and work together, enhancing their learning experience (Hong-Meng Tai et al. 2022:9).
As an outcome of the above, across my three 30 CAT modules of the students’ 120 CAT programme, I implemented the following assessment diet:
|FP009 Politics & International Relations
|FP053 Inquiry and Research Skills in Social Science
|FP036 Understanding Society
|Individual presentation (20%)
|Online Moodle course completion (10%)
|1500 word essay (40%)
|1000 word blog post (20%)
|Annotated bibliography (25%)
|Take home exam (40%)
|Film project (40%)
|Research project and academic poster presentation (40%)
|Case study (30%)
|Reflective log book (25%)
On reflection, after implementing this for one academic year, I found that the diversity and variety did indeed facilitate the nurturing of new skills, both for me and the students, that are likely to be useful for their future careers. In a feedback survey conducted at the end of the academic year, all of the respondents (6 out of the 8 registered on the course) agreed or strongly agreed that the assessments helped them develop skills that will be useful to them in the future. I found the variety motivating and helped to keep things exciting, both in terms of the types of assessments and the students’ choice within them. Within Understanding Society for example, for the infographic, the blog post and the film project, students had the option to choose to focus on any aspect of the given topic they are interested in, leading to a broad range of pieces of work which were a joy to mark. In collecting student feedback, all of the students who completed the survey either agreed or strongly agreed that the variety of assessment methods was exciting and motivated them to work hard.
I had been concerned about how student performance might be affected by the variety of assessment and the cognitive load that necessarily comes with it, but students actually performed very well, with the mean score for FP009 11 points higher than the previous academic year and three points higher in FP053, whilst FP036 did see a three-point fall in the mean overall outcome. All students responded to my survey that they agreed or strongly agreed that the variety of assessments enabled them to demonstrate the full range of their knowledge and skills and meant that at least some of the assessment types had catered to their personal strengths.
Nonetheless, there were challenges along the way. Introducing lots of new skills to the students alongside new knowledge was a heavy load both for me as the teacher and the students. Students reported at the end of the year feeling sufficiently prepared to complete all of the assessments, but a lot of time and energy had gone into this preparation. Further challenges from the teacher perspective included preparing appropriate assessment criteria for all the different forms of assessment, and considering parity across different assessment types. For example, I had to consider whether a 1500-word essay in Politics is of comparable workload and complexity to a 5-minute film production in Understanding Society, since they are both worth 40% of the 30 CAT modules.
The only one of my reasons for introducing such assessment diversity that was not evident in the experience was the level of stress students felt around their assessments. Two students disagreed that not doing only traditional exams reduced how stressful they found assessments and one response was neutral. Three did agree, but none strongly agreed. Interestingly, the assessments that the students reported enjoying the most were quite different to those they reported having learned the most from, so it may not always be the case that we learn the most when we are enjoying the experience. This appears to go against much research in the area of enjoyment and learning (Lucardie 2014).
There are thus many aspects for me to continue to reflect on and develop, including how my practice can be expressed in terms of an assessment ‘strategy’ (see the earlier post from the WIHEA Learning Circle), and the WIHEA Learning Circle is an excellent space for me and anyone else interested in diverse assessment to discuss good practice and share experiences as we look to improve our students’ experiences of assessment. If you would like to join this learning circle please contact the co-leads: Leda Mirbahai, Warwick Medical School (WMS) (Leda.Mirbahai@warwick.ac.uk) and Isabel Fischer, Warwick Business School (WBS) (Isabel.Fischer@wbs.ac.uk).
Bloxham, S and Boyd, P (2007) Developing Effective Assessment in Higher Education: A Practical Guide, London: McGraw-Hill Education
Dunn, L et al. (2004) The Student Assessment Handbook: New Directions in Traditional and On-line Assessment, London: RoutledgeFalmer
Hong-Meng Tai, J. et al. (2022) ‘Designing assessment for inclusion: an exploration of diverse students’ assessment experiences’ in Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2022.2082373
Knight, P. T and Yorke, M (2003) Assessment, Learning and Employability, Maidenhead: OUP
Lucardie, D (2014) ‘The impact of fun and enjoyment on adults’ learning’ in Procedia – Social and Behavioural Sciences 142, pp.439-446
O’Neill, G and Padden, L (2021)’Diversifying assessment methods: Barriers, benefits and enablers’ in Innovations in Education and Teaching International DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2021.1880462
Struyven, K et al. (2005) ‘Students’ perceptions about evaluation and assessment in higher education: a review’ in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 30(4) pp.325-341
This is the 5th blog in our diverse assessment series, the previous blogs can be found here:
Blog 1: Launch of the learning circle: https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/wjett/entry/interested_in_diverse/
Blog 2: Creative projects and the ‘state of play’ in diverse assessments: https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/wjett/entry/creative_projects_and/
Blog 3: Student experience of assessments: https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/wjett/entry/a_student_perspective/
Blog 4: Assessment Strategy – one year after starting the learning circle https://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/wjett/entry/one_year_on/
If you would like to join this learning circle please contact the co-leads: Leda Mirbahai, Warwick Medical School (WMS) (Leda.Mirbahai@warwick.ac.uk) and Isabel Fischer, Warwick Business School (WBS) (Isabel.Fischer@wbs.ac.uk).