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There are a variety of different ways in which students can be assessed during their courses, beyond traditional essays and exams. It is important to ensure that assessment methods selected are appropriate to test the subject matter of a given discipline, but it is possible to be creative in assessment types selected. 

Any assessment must align with the intended learning outcomes for a module. It is possible to be creative about how we assess within these parameters. It is important to balance summative assessment, which takes place at the end of a course and carries credit, and formative, which takes place throughout a course and is used to give feedback to students.   

Assessment might also be diagnostic, in that rather than evaluating knowledge gain, it looks at establishing the student’s current position.  It often takes place at the start of a learning programme or degree, and is used to identify strengths and areas for development, which are then shared with the student.  The DCAD: Foundation Programme module, ‘Foundation Skills’ is an example of module that includes a form of diagnostic assessment. 

A key idea in effective assessment is that of authenticity of the assessment approach, that is, the similarity between the assessed task and what students are being asked to achieve compared with what they are likely to encounter in the real world. Exams are a good example of an assessment that is very rarely authentic.  Assessment should be designed in ways that promote student learning, whether learning the subject or broader level (HEA, 2018). When designing assessments there should be consideration of not just what but how the material is tested. 

Best Practice Tips

The HEA publication ‘A marked improvement – Transforming assessment in Higher Education’ is useful for making judgements about what you want to assess and why. 

Here is an overview of common types of assessment method, with their pros and cons: 

  • Closed Book Exams – traditional, meets student expectations, you can guarantee the work is done by the student; but rewards exam technique as well as LOs, issues of inclusivity, stressful high-stakes assessment, complexity of timetabling, inauthentic. 
  • Open Book Exams – more authentic, but still with issues of high stakes/high stress. 
  • Seen questions – enables students to prepare in advance, but then is essentially testing recall. 
  • Essays/dissertations – traditional, can test deep knowledge and research skills; but, time-consuming to mark. 
  • Other written outputs (e.g. reports, journal articles, annotated bibliography, blogs) – more authentic; but, time consuming to mark. 
  • Oral examination/viva – time consuming, but can ensure authenticity/difficult for students to plagiarise 
  • Peer assessment – needs to be carefully managed to ensure validity, but the process of training students to mark and then marking is a learning experience in itself.  Often useful in a formative sense. 
  • Group project assessment – needs clear criteria and management to ensure that work is rewarded fairly, some students may be demotivated by the idea of group assessment; but highly authentic, develops real-world teamwork skills, and lower in marking time. 
  • Multiple-choice exams – more difficult to design questions that test deep levels of knowledge and application; but, can be marked quickly, particularly if digital. 
  • Portfolio assessment – enables self-reflection and bringing together many ideas and areas in order to present a more in-depth piece of work; time consuming to mark. 
  • Presentation/practical/performance – more authentic but needs clear marking criteria to ensure validity and evidence of outcomes; time consuming to mark.  Can be linked to industry specifications or accreditation, e.g. Archaeological Skills Passport. 
  • Posters – often alongside an oral presentation. Based on personal research.  More authentic, promotes creativity, but students can spend too long on the aesthetics and not the content/message. Need to ensure that assessment criteria are clear. 
  • Laboratory reports – traditional, based on a practical (which might be assessed separately), more authentic, but time consuming to mark.  Tests subject knowledge, analytical skills, alongside literacy (subject-specific terminology) and numeracy. 

There should be consideration for students with learning disabilities or additional needs. Learning should be accessible to all (where possible) and the mode of assessment should reflect this. Teachers must ensure that the assessment evaluates learning outcomes and not the speed, manual dexterity, vision, hearing, or physical endurance of the learner (JISC, 2017).  Alternative methods to meet the learning outcomes might be necessary for some students. 

Further Reading

Advance HE (no date), Transforming Assessment in Higher Education.

Jackel, B., Pearce, J. and Radloff, A. (2017) Assessment and feedback in Higher Education. Higher Education Authority.

JISC (2014) Making Assessments Accessible.