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Thresholded assessment: does it work?

Project leader(s): 
Sally Jordan

Many Science Faculty modules have moved from their previous summative continuous assessment to formative but thresholded continuous assessment. The aim of the project was to evaluate this Faculty-wide change in practice.

Two basic models of formative thresholded assessment are currently in use:

  • Model A. Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) and interactive computer-marked assignments (iCMAs) are weighted, and students are required to reach a threshold (usually 40%) overall.
  • Model B. Students are required to demonstrate engagement by reaching a threshold (usually 30%) in, say, 5 out of 7 assignments.

The relative merits of summative, purely formative and Model A and Model B formative-thresholded assessment were investigated. The project was split into a number of smaller practitioner-led sub-projects. The methodology was largely data-driven, though student and associate lecturer perception and opinion was also considered.

The main findings were as follows:

  • Many students and ALs have a poor understanding of our assessment strategies, including conventional summative continuous assessment. This is in line with a frequently found result that students have poor understanding of the nature and function of assessment. 
  • Many of the other findings stem from a similar lack of understanding. The increase in plagiarism following the move to formative thresholded assessment (with the accompanying re-use of TMA questions) was less marked than had been feared, but whenever tutor notes get into the public domain they are sometimes copied by students and submitted as their own work. This does not help the students to learn, or prepare them for the examinable component, so they are only “cheating themselves”. However, the offending students often find this point difficult to understand.
  • No significant differences in engagement were seen as a result of summative continuous assessment or models A or B of formative thresholded assessment. Following a move to either model of formative thresholded assessment, more students were seen to omit the final assignment or to submit a partial assignment. However overall retention and success rates have not altered as a result of the changes in assessment strategy (other factors e.g.changing student populations have had considerably larger impact) and some students have been seen to appreciate the encouragement to concentrate on the formative aspects of the continuous assessment rather than on the minutiae of the grading.
  • There is a correlation between the number of assignments submitted and overall success. However some students omitted TMAs without apparent impact on their final module result, and some of these students appear to have spent their limited time more profitably on revision. 
  • Thus, overall, no evidence has been seen to support a return to summative continuous assessment. However, it has rightly been pointed out that examinations cannot authentically assess all aspects of university-level skills. The use of two components contributing to the “overall examinable score” (OES), e.g. an examination and an experimental write-up, seems a sensible way forward, with the formative thresholded components helping students to prepare for both components.
  • There was no evidence of different behaviour as a result of the number of assessment points in the module, but several instances were observed in which submission rates dropped as a result of TMAs being too close to due dates for examinable components on the same module or for modules frequently studied concurrently.
  • Some evidence has been seen of students appearing more likely to complete modules with end-of-module assessments rather than examinations. However, if this effect is real (as opposed to being as a result of some modules being easier than others), it appears to influence engagement during a module rather than at the end, perhaps because students are less likely to feel frightened and overwhelmed on a module with an end-of-module rather than an examination.
  • Students have been seen to engage considerably more and more deeply with formative iCMAs when they have thresholds and hard cut-off dates. Some students appear to benefit from repeating questions. Since the repeating of iCMA questions sits more comfortably within Model B and there is no evidence to support the notion that Model A is more effective in any other way, Model B formative thresholded assessment with hard cut-off dates seems the best approach for iCMAs.
  • In the interests of consistency, the Faculty should then consider whether Model B formative thresholded assessment is also a better approach for TMAs. Model A was initially proposed as an alterative because it was felt that otherwise students would be tempted to omit TMAs, but there is no evidence of a significant difference in student behaviour on the two models. Model B would also be straightforward to explain to students, and there would be less scope for confusion with summative assessment.
  • Overall, the evidence presented supports the conclusion that students are “conscientious consumers” (Higgins, Hartley & Skelton, 2002) doing exactly what they think they are “meant” to do. However, the devil is in the detail; if we give an advisory cut-off date but put the actual cut-off date at a later stage, we should not be surprised that students see the actual cut-off date as the one that matters and work to that date rather than the advisory one.
  • The project started by looking for evidence that a change in modules’ assessment strategies might alter assignment submission rates. However, since submission rates also give a measure of attrition, it is possible to use the project’s detailed inspection of assignment submission on a wide range of modules to investigate other factors affecting retention. The different behaviour of continuing and new students, especially early in a module, was not a surprise, but the extent of the difference in retention was shocking. It is clear that different modules behave in different ways, but no unambiguous evidence has been found to explain why. Similarly, no systematic difference in attrition between 30- and 60-credit modules has been found, a point which is worthy of further investigation.

Related resources

Jordan, S. (2014) Thresholded assessment: Does it work?. eSTEeM Final Report. (PDF)

Cook, L., Butler, D. & Jordan, S. (2013). Student engagement in formative assessment. Poster presentation at the 4th Assessment in Higher Education Conference, Birmingham, 24-25 June 2013. (PDF)

Jordan, S. & Haresnape, J. (2013). Formative thresholded assessment: Evaluation of a faculty-wide change in assessment practice. Oral presentation at the 4th Assessment in Higher Education Conference, Birmingham, 24-25 June 2013. (PowerPoint)

Jordan, S. (2013). Using e-assessment to learn about learning. In Proceedings of the 2013 International Computer Assisted Assessment (CAA) Conference, Southampton, 9-10 July 2013. Retrieved 7 July 2014 from (PDF)

Jordan, S. (2014). Using e-assessment to learn about students and learning. International Journal of eAssessment, 4(1). (PDF)

Cook, L., Haresnape, J. & Jordan, S. (2014). Formative thresholded assessment: Is it working? Poster presentation at the 3rd eSTEeM Annual Conference, 6 May 2014. (PDF)

Jordan, S. (2014). Computer-marked assessment as learning analytics. Presentation at CALRG Conference, Milton Keynes, 10-11 June 2014. (PowerPoint)

Jordan, S. (2014). Computer-marked assessment or learning analytics? Presentation at the Variety in Chemistry Education & Physics Higher Education Conference, Durham, 28-29 August 2014. (PowerPoint)

Jordan, S. (2014) A review of a faculty-wide change in assessment practice for open and distance learners of science. Workshop paper at the 8th EDEN Research Workshop, Oxford, 27-28 October 2014. (PDF)

Jordan, S. (2014) A review of a faculty-wide change in assessment practice for open and distance learners of science. Presentation at the 8th EDEN Research Workshop, Oxford, 27-28 October 2014. (PowerPoint) 

Scholarship Shorts - video highlighting Sally's personal experiences of working on a number of scholarship projects and the subsequent impact and benefits of being an eSTEeM project leader.

Video length: 4 mins 40 secs