University student assessments reassessed

university student assessments reassessed

This blog is a guest post by Professor Jon Scott. Jon is a higher education consultant with extensive experience in quality assurance and developing practice in learning and teaching. His most recent academic roles were as Professor of Bioscience Education and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Student Experience) at the University of Leicester.

Higher education providers have been responding rapidly to the challenges of delivering their teaching online in response to the enforced closure of campuses for face-to-face teaching. As we reflected in last month’s blog, admissions tutors and planning offices have also been looking in detail at the likely impacts on admissions processes for the coming year.

In March, the Department for Education (DfE) announced the cancellation of the A level and GCSE public examinations. Then on Friday 3rd April, followed Ofqual’s (The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) paper setting out how GCSE and A Level grades will be awarded.

With the summer examination season rapidly approaching, universities too have had to rethink their assessment processes so they can progress their students from one year to the next and also, critically, award degrees to the thousands of students who hope to graduate this summer.

Autonomy and regulation

Universities are autonomous bodies and, therefore, are able to determine their own assessment processes. They do, however, have to comply with the requirements of a number of regulatory organisations.

The overarching requirement is for universities to remain compliant with the ongoing conditions of registration overseen by the Office for Students (OfS). In its guidance letters to the higher education (HE) sector, the OfS made plain that all HE providers should endeavour to enable students to complete their studies while also ensuring that they assess student achievement reliably, maintaining their academic standards so that the awards and classifications they certificate are secure and retain their value. Constructive guidance as to how this can be achieved has also been provided by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Many degree programmes are also accredited by Professional & Statutory Regulatory Bodies (PSRBs). There are now over 200 PSRBs, which range across the discipline areas including such bodies as the General Medical Council, the Bar Standards Board and the Royal Institute of British Architects. These bodies set their own expectations of the quality and standards of the qualifications awarded by universities, often specifying the forms of assessment to be employed.

Students’ concerns

What is clear is that the traditional forms of assessment that are still the norm for many programmes are no longer feasible. The unseen exam paper, taken by tens or even hundreds of students in a big hall, cannot now be run. But there are also implications for managing many other forms of assessment as well, particularly in the practical subjects such as the creative arts.

Not surprisingly, students across all higher education providers have been expressing their anxieties about what this all means for them. These concerns are very understandable: the disruption to their teaching may well have affected coverage of the curriculum and they will have been preparing for a specific type of assessment, which will have to be changed into a different format.

At a fundamental level, many final year students are worried about whether they will actually graduate and, if they do, whether their award will be viewed as having the same value it would have done beforehand. These concerns mirror the expectations set out by the OfS regarding the need to maintain the reliability and credibility of the assessments and associated awards.


University response

University staff are also bearing the brunt of the situation. As well as having to remodel their teaching for online delivery, staff are also having to re-design their assessments so they can be delivered in different formats and with different approaches to marking, while ensuring they retain their academic credibility. An important consideration is also to make sure that they don’t disadvantage any particular student groups.

It is welcome, therefore, to see that in drawing up their plans, the universities are actively engaging with the different parties and paying heed to their needs and expectations. I am very aware from talking with the universities that I am engaged with that they are taking onboard the expectations of the OfS, QAA and the professional bodies, but are also working closely with their students and staff to adopt solutions that address all the requirements as best they can. In any such situation, maintaining open lines of communication is absolutely critical so that the different stakeholders know they are being listened to.

The need for change

As with the enforced changes in delivery of teaching, the pressing requirement to reassess assessment is moving the debate on rapidly and is likely to lead to permanent changes. Many universities were already reviewing their assessment strategies in order to adopt more authentic assessments*.

The traditional three-hour written exam paper is increasingly recognised as not being a very good indicator of the true knowledge and skills acquired during a degree programme and is not reflective of the skills looked for by most current employers. Furthermore, the weeks of cramming notes prior to the exams are all too often followed by equally rapid forgetting.


It is also important to remember that although the term ‘finals’ conveys the perception of a set of examinations on which hangs the outcome of the whole degree, this is increasingly not the case.

For example, for the vast majority of three-year undergraduate programmes, the second year counts towards the degree – commonly contributing 30 – 40% of the overall mark. The majority of modules have an element of coursework assessment, in some cases up to 100% of the module mark. Furthermore, most degree programmes have a final year project or dissertation module which may contribute up to one-third of the final year’s mark.

As a consequence, the ‘final examinations’ may contribute 20% or less of the final mark obtained by the student. For those universities that hold some of the examinations in January, the forthcoming summer examinations may represent only 10% of the final outcome.


Flexible assessments and no detriment policy

Many universities have drawn up revised academic regulations to allow them greater flexibility regarding assessment structures. The key to meeting the expectations of the OfS and other regulatory bodies, is to make sure that the learning outcomes of the programmes are assessed and demonstrably met. It is also critical to make sure that no groups of students are disadvantaged in the process: all students must be supported to achieve their outcomes.

As a consequence, a combination of two approaches to replacing the finals examinations is appearing widely across the sector: flexible assessment in conjunction with a ‘no detriment policy’.

Flexible examinations

The flexible examinations are often taking the form of an open-book assessment that has to be completed within a 24-hour period. Care is being taken to ensure that students with ongoing mitigating circumstances are being supported, likewise the programme teams are ensuring they take account of challenges some students may have in accessing effective IT resources.

‘No detriment’ policy

The ‘no detriment’ policy provides a safety net whereby a student’s performance in the examination cannot result in a final mark lower than the overall mark they had already achieved prior to taking the examinations. Universities are also thinking creatively about the ways in which they can assess students in project work in the sciences or the creative arts. In these instances, the student may not have had access to the necessary equipment or resources.

Universities are adapting at speed

As with the delivery of teaching, universities have had to revise their approach to assessment, responding rapidly to a very challenging situation. The speed with which those responses have been achieved is remarkable, especially given the level of consultation that has been included as part of the process.

What is evident is that, in many cases, there has been a dramatic acceleration along a path that was already being taken. There are clearly challenges to be addressed, for example authentication of the person taking the assessment. But these have been considered in respect of distance learning programmes for many years and there are also new solutions such as online ‘invigilation’, which are increasingly effective.

This crisis has given the sector the impetus to reassess assessment practices and to develop assessments that are more fit for purpose. Can we say goodbye to the hot exam hall with serried rows of students, their wrists aching from writing for three hours? Maybe not quite yet but perhaps the writing is on the wall.

* Examples of some recent publications on authentic assessment:

Hannah Forsyth & Jedidiah Evans (2019) Authentic assessment for a more inclusive history, Higher Education Research & Development, 38:4, 748-761, DOI: 10.1080/07294360.2019.1581140

Popi Sotiriadou, Danielle Logan, Amanda Daly & Ross Guest (2019) The role of authentic assessment to preserve academic integrity and promote skill development and employability, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1582015

Verónica Villarroel, David Boud, Susan Bloxham, Daniela Bruna & Carola Bruna (2020) Using principles of authentic assessment to redesign written examinations and tests, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57:1, 38-49, DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2018.1564882

For more from Jon, read last month’s blog about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on university admissions for 2020/21. If you have any comments or questions, you can contact us or get in touch with Jon directly on Twitter at @jon_scott.