How can educators tackle the question of assessments during lockdown?

Sam Blyth, senior sales director of education at Instructure, believes digital assessments are here to stay

Up and down the country, university leaders, lecturers and support staff are doing everything they can to help students continue learning with as little disruption as possible, while maintaining the standards that make UK HE qualifications so valuable.

A huge part of this is in working to create alternative assessments that will test students’ learning and understanding – albeit from a remote location.

Indeed, students have called for modified assessments that will still allow them to receive grading and feedback as expected, rather than deferring exams and coursework to a later date or cancelling them altogether.

How it’s working

At its broadest, the challenge for educators is to ensure that assessments are fair and equitable for all, while meeting the standards demanded by professional bodies and future employers.

In coursework particularly, reciprocal feedback is proving crucially important. This is also married with peer feedback mechanisms which help to recreate a seminar experience where students are able to discuss ideas and their responses to course material.

As seen in Hepi’s recent survey of undergraduates, the response from students to online course work has been largely positive. Yet, on the flipside, understandably there are concerns over the propensity for cheating in virtual exams: asking others for help or looking up answers online as students submit work.

To combat this, we’ve seen the use of ‘open book’ exams become more prevalent, together with tasks that avoid questions requiring students to simply recall knowledge, and instead focus on asking students to apply, analyse, critique or evaluate knowledge.

Ensuring access is also crucial. Across all educational sectors, there is significant evidence that student access to learning resources is far from consistent. In HE, access to resources – robust internet, high-specification laptops and quiet and comfortable learning spaces – is often more acute than earlier learning levels, and it’s important that institutions are able to address this problem, either offering equipment for those at a disadvantage, or continuing wider industry discussions of increased funding.

No matter how assessments are being deployed, a common goal has emerged among all institutions: the technology in play must be an enabler, seamlessly delivering learning ‘in the background’. Students need to focus on the assessments themselves, not on how to use the tech platforms or grapple with user interfaces.

Across all educational sectors, there is significant evidence that student access to learning resources is far from consistent

For technologists, this means a focus on ensuring clear and easy workflows, with logical navigation, simple presentation and well-chosen functionality.

And for educators there are other important considerations that should be taken into account. Consistency across courses, for example; if students and teachers are participating in multiple courses, navigation to assessments should be consistent.

Likewise, communication between educators and students is crucial, with a clear protocol needed to define how lecturers let students know where to find their assessments and how to complete them effectively.

Training up staff

Training is vital here. Simply expecting staff, many of whom are inexperienced with providing online learning, to deliver a version of their usual lectures/seminars online will not be serving our students well. Instead, the savviest institutions are diverting significant time and investment to ensuring that teaching staff are comfortable with technology and know-how to adapt courses, and their respective assessment processes, for the best results.

While the HE industry faces challenging times ahead, through the sophistication of available technology and by drawing on the wisdom of colleagues, peers and external examiners, universities can offer students thoughtful, mindful and appropriate assessments. However, it’s important that changes to assessment patterns are not undertaken simply to get us through this crisis. This immediate need could well be a catalyst to better blend online and offline teaching, learning and assessment for the long-term.

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