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Aiming for the sweet spot of assessment

Posted 30th June 2015

There was a good OU presence at this year's Assessment in Higher Education Conference reports Tim Hunt who attended the event with Sally Jordan. With eight representatives, there were many presentations and posters but many of them seemed to cluster around a few common themes.

Perhaps the biggest theme was feedback, and whether students actually read it and benefit from it. There is evidence that they don’t always, and various ideas for what might be done about that. Another hot topic was institution-wide (or at least programme-wide) reviews of assessment and feedback practice. In many cases this was done using a HEA framework called TESTA, and the reason given for doing it was the NSS.

There were two keynotes, both suitably controversial. The first questioned the usefulness of distinguishing formative and summative assessment. The argument was that an assessment that does not actually assess students is missing the point (so all assessment should be summative, even if it is low stakes). Conversely, all assessment will have a formative effect, whether you have planned for it or not, so better to plan for the best formative effect from all your assessment. The second keynote considered transparency of assessment. Too much transparency (think school exams) can drive pathological behaviour like excessive teaching to the test. At the other extreme, assessment where students don’t know what is expected of them are just unfair. In the middle, it as proposed, is a sweet spot where students are given enough information about the required learning outcomes to operate as self-directed learners, without the bad effects of excessive transparency.

The OU contributions to the conference covered ranged from Religious Studies, Languages and Social Science, to more STEM-related topics. Sally Jordan and I gave a talk “I wish I could believe you: the frustrating unreliability of some assessment research”. Criticising other people’s research was rather presumptuous of us, but it seemed to go down well. Sally also gave a solo presentation “Formative thresholded assessment: Reflections on the evaluation of a faculty-wide change in assessment practice”. Finally, Niusa Marigheto and colleagues had a poster about “Gender differences in completion and credit on physical science modules” which was previously presented at this year’s eSTEeM conference.

If you would like to read more, then I blogged a summary. Sally Jordan has also written several posts on her blog. If that is not enough for you, there is more on the #AssessmentHEconf hashtag on Twitter.