Moving assessment online

Working in partnerhsip with students to enable them to show their performance through assessment.

Lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19 has been in place for three weeks in the UK with no prospect of it ending anytime soon. At my institution, we are now planning to move our three summer pre-sessional English (PSE) programmes entirely online and to assess them there as well. In the early days of lockdown, there were many useful exchanges on the BALEAP Jiscmail discussion list with colleagues sharing their experience of delivering online teaching & assessment for pre-sessional programmes. At the same time my institution was going into overdrive to reformat end of semester degree-level assessments, for delivery in the May-June assessment diet. There was much sharing of good practice and principles for secure and reliable assessments that were fair to students and maintained the quality of degree qualifications. Last week Advance HE, the professional body that supports academic excellence in the UK, ran a webinar: Moving assessment on-line: Key principles for inclusion, pedagogy and practice. It was a model of good practice in hosting webinars and delivered clear messages about assessing online.

There were three speakers Professor David Carless, on student feedback, Jess Moody, on inclusive practices, and Dr Geoff Stoakes on managing quality online. Each had 15-20 minutes to speak and delivered their points succinctly and in the allotted time. There were over 1,000 participants in the session I attended but their contributions were confined to the chat, where quite a lot of personal banter was shared with everyone – perhaps they didn’t realise their trivial exchanges could be seen by all. The host asked participants to formulate questions in a Q&A channel, which he then selected from for the participants’ response. This compares very favourably with other webinars I’ve attended recently, which were unstructured and mostly a waste of time.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

David Carless researches the uptake of feedback by students (Carless & Boud, 2018) and outlined the key principles involved in developing student feedback literacy, including peer feedback, self-evaluation and coaching students so they are more aware of their responsibilities in feedback. This is something we already do quite well on our PSE programmes, where we use an asynchronous discussion board within the virtual learning environment (VLE) to create a class community of practice for giving feedback on writing. Students have a formative writing assignment each week of about 250 words – linked to their summative assignments – which they post in a set of discussion board forums. Their classmates (peers) are asked to use assessment criteria, shared on the front of the forum, to give feedback. The teacher needs to monitor the type of feedback and challenge any peers who give superficial responses. In order to receive feedback from the teacher, students must give helpful peer feedback to two of their peers. Having to ‘buy’ teacher feedback in this way develops a sense of responsibility for peer feedback and helps students to engage with assessment criteria for evaluating their own work.

Jess Moody spoke about inclusion, equality and diversity, asking colleagues to be aware of ways in which decisions to change assessment might contribute to existing systemic disadvantage for diverse groups of students. For example, not all students have a quiet and private space at home in which to work online or the most up to date technology to use. She emphasised the importance of flexibility and giving choices in assessment as well as providing well-being support. During the question time, she noted how the disabled community had been calling for the kinds of changes now being implemented for years and were on the one hand angry that it had taken the Covid-19 crisis to bring them about but pleased that they were finally being introduced.

The final speaker, Geoff Stoakes, spoke about issues of quality, He advised making reasonable decisions for robust, inclusive, equitable, reliable and valid assessment in the interests of students and the quality of learning. He stressed that any changes to assessment should be considered holistically across the whole programme in order to be sure that some learning outcomes were not over-assessed. He also recommended reflecting on what changes had to be made this year to accommodate online assessment and evaluating whether these weren’t more effective than more traditional methods going forward.

The key messages from these three speakers were to work in partnership with students, so they are consulted about possible changes, to provide choice and flexibility in assessment, and to trust students. Inevitably questions were asked about the possibility of cheating and, in particular, commissioning essays through essay-writing mills. All three speakers thought that giving students ownership and investment in their assessment meant they would welcome the opportunity to show their performance and hence, would be less likely to cheat. One of the ways we give choice and ownership on our PSE is to require students to choose the concepts they wish to explore through all writing assessments – not just a final project. We assume they have come to university to engage deeply with their degree subjects and will be motivated to be able to choose what to explore.

Carless, D. & Boud, D. (2018) The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:8, 1315-1325, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354

Author: Olwyn Alexander

I'm an author and researcher in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I collaborated with two friends and colleagues, Sue Argent and Jenifer Spencer, to write EAP Essentials: a teacher's guide to principles and practice, now in its second edition. Sue and I also wrote the course book series, Access EAP: Foundations and Frameworks.

One thought on “Moving assessment online”

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