The Art of Assessing

This article first appeared in the SEDA publication the New Academic, 1995 vol.5 issue 3 and is reproduced with permission.

A toolkit of techniques

Assessment can take many forms, and it can be argued that the greater the diversity in the methods of assessment, the fairer assessment is to students. The art of assessing therefore needs to embrace several different kinds of activity. In this article, I would like to encourage colleagues to broaden the range of assessment processes, and I have tried to provide practical suggestions about how to maximise the benefits of each of a number of methods I have addressed. In each case, I have also listed a few of the advantages of using the method, as well as some of the corresponding drawbacks.

Whether we think of ourselves as lecturers, or teachers, or facilitators of learning, the most important thing we do for our students is to assess their work. It is in the final analysis the assessment we do that determines their diplomas, degrees, and future careers. Over the last decade, many of us have seen our assessment workload grow dramatically, as we work with increasing numbers of student, who are ever more diverse. Consequently, the time we have available to devote to assessing each student has fallen. It is therefore more important than ever to cultivate 'the art of assessing'.

God-given gift?

Just as it seems to be assumed that anyone appointed to a teaching post in higher education can automatically teach, it is also implicit that they should be able to assess students' work. Many teachers in higher education wield their red pens for the first time without ever having had any real training in how to assess. Many are embarrassed at the notion of even asking for any guidance, yet are quite intimidated at the responsibility attached to assessing.

A very private act

Teaching is a public affair, and we get all sorts of feedback regarding how well or how badly we teach - even without deliberately seeking feedback. The expressions on students' faces, the attendance at our classes, and the level of students' performance all help us to adjust our teaching techniques. Assessment, however, tends to be a private and intimate affair, and there is seldom anyone looking over our shoulders as we go about designing and implementing assessment. Given the importance of assessment, it is probably the aspect of our profession that should be scrutinised most carefully. Even with the best of intentions, external examiners and moderators can only contribute a limited amount to the processes of assessment, and the primary responsibility for assessment continues to rest with teachers.

Marks, grades and feedback

One of the most useful benefits of assessment can be feedback gained by students on their performance regarding skills they are intended to develop, and their understanding of theories and concepts. It is an important part of the learning process for students to be able to learn from their mistakes as well as their triumphs. With larger class-sizes and increasing workloads, the time staff can devote to giving students detailed feedback on their work has been substantially eroded. It is therefore worth considering whether alternative forms of assessment (student peer-assessment in particular) can help increase the amounts of feedback which students can derive from assessed work.

Why assess?

There are many reasons for assessing students performance. Not all are good reasons. Some of the reasons are:

1. Traditional exams

Traditional 'unseen' exams still make up the lion's share of assessment in higher education. Despite growing concern about the validity and fairness of this type of assessment, for all sorts of reasons it will continue to play a large part in the overall assessment picture. Despite many concerns about exams, I have tried in the following discussion to suggest a number of ways that the use of exams can be improved. I have given more 'tips' for setting exam questions than for setting the other nine types of assessment explored in this article, as in general, good practice in writing exam questions overlaps with, or extends across, each of the other types.


Disadvantages Tips on setting exam questions

2. Open-book exams

In many ways these are similar to traditional exams, but with the major difference that students are allowed to take in with them sources of reference material. Sometimes, in addition the 'timed' element is relaxed or abandoned, allowing students to answer questions with the aid of their chosen materials, and at their own pace.


These have many of the advantages of traditional exams, with the addition of:


Tips on setting open-book exam questions

All of the suggestions regarding traditional exam questions still apply. In addition.....

3. Structured exams

These include multiple-choice exams, and several other types of formats where students are not required to write 'full' answers, but are involved in making true/false decisions, or identifying reasons to support assertions, or fill in blanks or complete statements, and so on. It is of course possible to design 'mixed' exams, combining free-response traditional questions with structured ones. In the following discussion, I will concentrate on the benefits and drawbacks of multiple choice questions, which also apply at least in part to other types of structured exam questions.


Disadvantages Tips for designing multiple-choice exams

4. Essays

In some subjects, assessment is dominated by essay-writing. Traditional (and open-book) exams often require students to write essays. Assessed coursework often takes the form of essays.


Disadvantages Tips on setting and using essay-type questions

Most of the suggestions given earlier in this article about writing traditional exam questions continue to apply - whether essays are to be used as assessed coursework or as exam questions. Some further suggestions are given below.

5. Reviews

Anyone who reviews books for journals or magazines will confirm that there's no better way of making oneself look deeply into a book than to be charged with the task of writing a review of it! Getting students to write reviews is therefore a logical way of causing them to interact in depth with the information they review.


Disadvantages Tips on setting assessed review tasks

6. Reports

Assessed reports make up at least part of the coursework component of many courses. Report-writing is one of the hardest things when it comes to providing students with general advice, as (for example) the nature of a report in Sociology differs substantially from that for Mechanical Engineering.


Disadvantages Tips on setting assessed report-writing

7. Practical work

Many areas of study involve practical work, but it is often much more difficult to assess such work in its own right; assessing reports of practical work may only involve measuring the quality of the end-product of the practical work, and not the work itself.


Disadvantages Tips for assessing practical work

8. Portfolios

Building up portfolios of evidence of achievement is becoming much more common, following on from the use of Records of Achievement at school. Typically, portfolios are compilations of evidence of students' achievements, including major pieces of their work, feedback comments from tutors, and reflective analyses by the students themselves.


Disadvantages Tips on using and assessing portfolios

9. Presentations

Giving presentations to an audience requires substantially different skills from writing answers to exam questions. Also, it can be argued that the communications skills involved in giving good presentations are much more relevant to professional competences needed in the world of work. It is therefore increasingly common to have assessed presentations as part of students' overall assessment diet.


Disadvantages Tips on using assessed presentations

10. Vivas

Viva-voce exams have long been used to add to or consolidate the results of other forms of assessment. They normally take the form of interviews or oral examinations, where students are interrogated about selected parts of work they have had assessed in other ways.


Disadvantages Tips on using vivas


None of the above forms of assessment is without its merits or its limitations. The challenges caused by greater numbers of students and increased assessment workloads provide an opportunity to make a radical review of the ways we assess our students. In particular, we must ensure that our attempts to meet these challenges do not lead to a retreat from those forms of assessment which are less cost-effective, but which help students to get due credit for a sensible range of the knowledge and skills they demonstrate. Probably the best way to do our students justice is to use as wide as possible a mixture of the assessment methods outlined above, allowing students a range of processes through which to demonstrate their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Moreover, we need to ensure that learning is not simply assessment-driven. It can be argued that presently we have far too much assessment, but that neither the quality nor the diversity of this assessment is right. Students are highly intelligent people; if we confront them with a game where learning is linked to a rigid and monotonous diet of assessment, they will learn according to the rules of that game. To improve their learning, we need to improve our game.

Further reading

Brown, S and Knight, P (1994) Assessing Learners in Higher Education Kogan Page, London.
Brown, S, Gibbs, G and Rust, C (1994) Diversifying Assessment Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford.
Coulson, A (1994) Objective Testing Series 11, Red Guides for Staff, No.4, University of Northumbria at Newcastle.
Race, P and Brown, S (1993) 500 Tips for Tutors Kogan Page, London.
Race, P (1994) Never Mind the Teaching - Feel the Learning SEDA Paper 80, SEDA Publications, Birmingham, UK.


Phil Race is grateful to Carole Baume (Oxford Brookes University), Sally Brown (University of Northumbria at Newcastle) and Ivan Moore (University of Ulster) for very useful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

This article first appeared in The New Academic Vol.4 Issue 3, and is reproduced with permission. The second part can be found in Vol.5 Issue 1. For subscription details, contact Jill Brookes, Administrator, The Staff and Educational Development Association, Gala House, Raglan Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B5 7RA. Tel. (0121) 440-5021 Fax: (0121) 440-5022.