Designing assessments that are meaningful, equitable and manageable in UK higher education

Designing assessments for very large classes is often a problematic experience for academic staff, a challenge that is magnified in today’s highly internationalised student environment. In this post HEA Fellow Fiona Saunders discusses the considerations and constraints that must be taken into account when designing assessments that are meaningful, equitable and manageable for both staff and students alike. The post will be of particular interest to the “newbie academic” or those facing the challenges of large class teaching for the first time.

Fiona is Senior Lecturer in the Management of Projects at The University of Manchester (fiona.saunders@manchester.ac.uk).

Ever increasing class sizes have become an immutable law of nature for many UK HE teaching staff. Here at The University of Manchester undergraduate and postgraduate cohorts of between 300-400 students are not untypical.  Leaving aside the timetabling, logistical and staff resource implications of large classes, there is often a sense of sheer terror for the “newbie” academic who must face down 300 students who sit, slump, sleep, snack or surf (and sometimes all of these during a single lecture) in serried ranks before them. 

I have blogged here about the challenges of large class teaching and provided some tips for those confronted with this challenge for the first time. One of the thorniest problems for large classes is that of assessment; designing a diet of formative exercises, summative coursework and examinations that are meaningful, equitable and manageable. A meaningful assessment is one which supports the achievement of learning objectives (Biggs, 1996). It might also deepen disciplinary knowledge, develop skills in autonomous learning or provide important formative feedback to students. An equitable assessment is one for which the reward is proportional to the effort put in and the skills demonstrated, whether this is on an individual or group basis. A manageable assessment is one which can be completed and marked in a timely manner, without undue stress for staff or students.

'Iron triangle' of assessment design

I have previously argued here that effective assessment design is rather like the ubiquitous “iron triangle” of time, cost and scope (features and functionality) in my discipline of project management (cf. Lock, 2007) , where projects often achieve two but fail to deliver on the third objective – the London 2012 Olympics being a great example of this (on time delivery – yes, great features and functionality – yes, on budget – sadly no). 

So in the world of academic assessment, a group presentation may be manageable for staff to mark, and meaningful for students in terms of learning but can it be truly equitable to all students, with rewards proportional to the amount of effort and contribution made by each individual student? Even with an element of peer assessment I remain to be convinced……Conversely, a traditional 2 hour written examination is equitable to all students, and reasonably meaningful in terms of measuring learning outcomes but ask any academic faced with turning around 300 exam scripts in 7 days whether this is a manageable and sustainable state of affairs and you will likely be greeted with derision, if not a stream of unrepeatable abuse!

Recent conversations with colleagues wrestling with similar assessment dilemmas and serendipitously stumbling across the BBC’s latest education fly-on-the-wall documentary (Are our kids tough enough? Chinese school) has led me to reflect on the utility of my iron triangle of assessment design and whether it is in need of an update. 

[As an aside, BBC Chinese school provides a fascinating (if somewhat methodologically flawed) window into the cultural and pedagogical differences between Chinese and UK teachers and their respective pupils but that is a subject for another blog post.]

Prism of assessment design

I wonder if the iron triangle of assessment design is better visualised as a 3 dimensional structure – a prism if you will. As anyone with distant memories of GSCE physics will know, a prism bends and splits white light as it passes through the prism; so taking different perspectives of the light will affect how it appears in the prism.

Stretching this metaphor a little to the HE assessment conundrum, we retain the three key objectives of assessment – meaningful, equitable and manageable, but we augment these with a multiplicity of different perspectives – such as staff perspectives, student perspectives and an administrative or managerial perspective. 

Viewing the prism through each of these perspectives changes how we understand the three objectives.  From a student perspective, for example, the cohorts’ cultural background, educational experience, language ability and learning preferences will impact on their sense of how equitable the assignment is, and whether rote learning for a memory based examination or applying concepts to practical case studies is a more meaningful form of assessment. For staff, their own cultural background, their experience as a student, and their preferred teaching style will inform how they design assessments: for example, whether groups should be self or teacher selected, or whether exams or coursework assessment are favoured as more equitable.  From a managerial perspective, there may be limitations placed on assessment design such as not allowing exclusively multiple choice based examinations, or requirements to provide feedback in a particular format and timeframe. There may also be constraints on the use of additional teaching assistant resources that limit the opportunities for formative feedback to large classes. We could add other perspectives or angles to our prism: For example, in applied disciplines such as medicine and engineering, assessment must demonstrate compliance with the professional bodies. The technology perspective too is informative; what IT infrastructure and eLearning support is reliably available to staff to optimise the manageability, equitability and meaningfulness of assessments?

What emerges from the assessment design prism is a much broader range of considerations and constraints that must be taken into account when designing assessment for large classes. It seems more clear than ever that the complexity and interconnectedness of many of the different perspectives imply that there is no one size fits all policy for assessment design.  Rather, designing assessments that are meaningful, equitable and manageable is a skill, requiring good disciplinary knowledge, an understanding of pedagogy and must take into account a range of different perspectives from students and staff amongst others.

Armed with these insights, I wish you the best of luck in designing your own assessments and right now I’m off to catch up with the next episode of Chinese School on the iPlayer!

Discussion

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References

Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher education, 32(3), 347-364.

Lock, D. (2007). Project Management, 9th ed. Aldershot:Gower Publishing Limited.