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Understanding the impact of assessment in higher education

A new ACER report explores assessment practices and their impact in higher education in the United Kingdom, as Brad Jackel explains.

The report for Britain’s Higher Education Academy, Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education: A review of literature, explores what assessment practices look like in the higher education sector and the issues for practitioners in the implementation of assessment with and for students.

The findings of the report address two key questions: what elements are fundamental to the development of high-quality assessment for improved student learning in higher education; and how robust is the understanding of fundamental aspects of assessment such as feedback (including forward focused advice), peer- and self-assessment, summative assessment, and the use of technology within assessment in higher education?

Answering those two questions, the report concludes that there are opportunities for improving the ‘proving’ of assessment approaches in higher education that demonstrably assist learning outcomes.

According to the report, the fundamentals of high-quality assessment in higher education are apparent. These fundamentals include:

  • an approach based on assessment for rather than simply of learning
  • assessments that are aligned to intended learning outcomes and use fit-for-purpose methods to provide relevant measurement of students’ progress
  • performance standards that are developed through the collaboration of staff, students and other stakeholders
  • building assessment literacy in both students and staff
  • the defensibility of professional judgements by staff, and
  • recognition that assessment may not be able to measure all learning. 

On the robustness of understandings about assessment, however, the report found that:

  • while the pedagogical theories addressing feedback are sound, solid evidence for effectiveness is thin in some areas
  • the provision by students of feedback through peer- and self-assessment appears to offer value, but research to measure that is yet to emerge
  • research into how summative assessment shapes student behaviour, including measurement of changes in behaviour, is yet to emerge, and
  • research on the impact of technology within assessment is far from mature.

In terms of institutional policy, the report concludes that leadership in higher education is required in order to set principles for improving the assessment literacy of both students and staff; for embedding the knowledge and application of assessment ‘fundamentals’; and for facilitating the development of more programmatic approaches to the design and development of assessment.

On educational practice, the report recommends the development of evaluative designs to inform innovation in assessment, potentially through collaboration between discipline experts and assessment experts, such as is occurring in specialist medical training in Australia. â– 

Read the full report:
Assessment and Feedback in Higher Education: A review of literature for the Higher Education Academy by Brad Jackel, Jacob Pearce, Ali Radloff and Daniel Edwards, ACER, 2017.


About the author

Dr Brad Jackel is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Assessment and Reporting (Humanities and Social Sciences) research program.

More [rd] articles by Brad Jackel

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