Is it worth the effort?

I’m taking a short break from reporting findings from my analysis into student engagement with short-answer free-text questions to reflect on a couple of things following the HEA UK Physical Sciences Centre workshop on ‘More effective assessment and feedback’ at the University of Leicester on Wednesday. It was an interesting meeting – initially people sat very quietly listening to presentations, but by the afternoon there was lots of discussion. I spoke twice –  in the morning I wittered on about the problem of students not answering the question you (the academic) thought you had asked; in the afternoon I was on the more familiar ground of writing short-answer free-text e-assessment questions, with feedback.

Steve Swithenby ran two discussion sessions and at the end he got us classifying various ‘methods of providing feedback’ as high/medium/low in terms of ‘importance and value to student’, ‘level of resources needed’ and ‘level of teacher expertise required’. Obviously, in the current economic climate we’re looking for something that is high, low, low. I agree with Steve that e-assessment, done properly, is high, high, high.

Right at the end, someone asked me ‘Is it worth the effort?’ It’s a fair point. On one level, in my own context at the UK Open University I know that all the considerable effort I have put into writing good e-assessment questions has been worthwhile, on financial as well as pedagogical grounds – simply because we have so many students and can re-use low-stakes questions from year to year. I’m quite used to explaining that this is not necessarily the case in other places, with smaller student numbers. However, the question went deeper than that – do we over-assess? is the effort that we put into assessment per se worth it, in terms of improving learning? It’s a truism that assessment drives learning and I have certainly seen learning take place as students are assessed, in a way that I doubt would happen otherwise. But is this generally true? What would be the effect of reducing the amount of assessment on our modules and programmes? I don’t know.

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