Dr. D. Theresa Nicholson is a Reader (Higher Education and Pedagogy) in the Department of Natural Sciences at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is an AdvanceHE National Teaching Fellow (2020) and HEA Principal Fellow. Theresa is best known for her passionate advocacy of inclusive learning and teaching and for driving forward the HE agenda around equality, diversity and inclusion. Theresa has pioneered many curriculum innovations and her signature pedagogy is characterised by student-centred, active, authentic learning that builds-in flexible assessment, aligning learning with students’ aspirations, motivations and interests. Theresa has published on aspects of creativity and peer learning in assessment; student engagement and belonging; technology-enhanced learning; inclusive student partnership; and support for d/Deaf and disabled students. She is currently researching synergies between enquiry-based learning and global citizenship, and their potential for supporting diversity awareness and enhancing graduate outcomes. email@example.com
The role of flexible assessment
Increasing societal demand for graduates with authentic, career-relevant skills and knowledge requires that learners are placed at the centre of a more personalised Higher Education experience. While much has been written about flexibility in learning and teaching and flexible pedagogies (e.g. Ryan and Tilbury 2013), flexible assessment is often neglected. When assessment is regarded more as a means for learning (Keamy et al. 2007) and students are given opportunities for self-direction around assessment, the potential benefits are many. They include effective learning (Jackson 1997), deep learning (Gibbs 1992), motivation and engagement (Pacharn et al. 2013), creativity (Nicholson 2018), autonomy (Ryan and Deci 2000) and inclusion (Marriott and Lau 2008, Race 2001, Brown 2005).
What is flexible assessment?
At its most basic, flexible assessment can simply mean providing greater diversity in the methods, tasks and modes of delivery (Hyde et al. 2004). It may mean giving students some self-direction over the ‘mechanics’ of the assessment strategy – assignment weightings, workload, calculation of final grade, and timing, for instance (e.g. Pacharn et al. 2013, Rideout 2018, Marriott and Lau 2008, Cook 2001). But flexible assessment has the most positive impact on inclusion when there is student choice in the nature of assessment tasks, the format of work submitted, and the curriculum content. There are many approaches for integrating flexible assessment, but a strategy I use to good effect is the ‘portfolio of evidence’. In this, students compile evidence addressing a range of topics and presented in different formats, to demonstrate their achievement of the module learning outcomes. The portfolio is accompanied by an over-arching commentary on the evidence provided, setting it into the appropriate conceptual framework.
Challenges and concerns
Why isn’t flexible assessment employed more commonly? This is a reasonable question to pose. There may be constraints, perceived at least, around the capacity of administrative systems to handle flexibility. There are also valid concerns about equivalence and reliability in flexible assessment (Wood and Smith 1999), ensuring fairness and equity between students, implications for marking workload (Wanner and Palmer 2015), and the potential impact on power relationships between lecturers and students (Morgan and Bird 2007).
Nevertheless, the role of assessment is so great – in students’ motivation, study time, graduate outcomes, and curriculum design – that it must be engaging, relevant, authentic and intrinsically interesting. In this #LTHEChat it would be good to explore the benefits and challenges of flexible assessment, and in particular to consider its role in the delivery of an inclusive learner experience. It would be good if we could capture some effective examples of flexible assessment and identify solutions to any barriers to its use.
Brown, S. (2005). Assessment for learning. Learning And Teaching In Higher Education (1), 81-89.
Cook, A. (2001). Assessing the Use of Flexible Assessment. Assessment And Evaluation In Higher Education 26(6), 539-549. https://srhe.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02602930120093878
Gibbs, G. (1992). Improving The Quality Of Student Learning (Bristol, Technical and Educational Services).
Hyde, P., Clayton, B., and Booth, R. (2004). Exploring Assessment In Flexible Delivery Of Vocational Education And Training Programs. National Centre for Vocational Education Research. Adelaide.
Jackson, M. (1997). But learners learn more. Higher Education Research and Development 16(1), 101–109.
Keamy, R. L., Nicholas, H. R., Mahar, S. and Herrick, C. (2007). Personalising Education: From Research To Policy And Practice.
Marriott, P. and Lau, A. (2008). The use of on-line summative assessment in an undergraduate financial accounting course. Journal Of Accounting Education 26, 73–90.
Morgan, C. and Bird, J. (2007). Flexible assessment: some tensions and solutions. In: B. Khan (Ed.). Flexible Learning In An Information Society. Information Science Publishing, Hershey, 247-259.
Nicholson, D. T. (2018). Enhancing student engagement through online portfolio assessment. Practitioner Research in Higher Education 11(1), 15-31.
Pacharn, P., Bay, D. and Felton, S. (2013). The impact of a flexible assessment system on students’ motivation, performance and attitude. Accounting Education 22(2), 147-167.
Race, P. (2001). A Briefing On Self, Peer And Group Assessment. LTSN Generic Centre Assessment Guides Series.
Rideout, C. A. (2018). Students’ choices and achievement in large undergraduate classes using a novel flexible assessment approach. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 43(1), 68-78.
Ryan, R. M. and Deci, E. L. (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being, American Psychologist 55(1), 68–78.
Ryan, A. and Tilbury, D. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: New Pedagogical Ideas. Higher Education Academy, London. Online at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/npi_report.pdf
Wanner, T. and Palmer, E. (2015). Personalising learning: Exploring student and teacher perceptions about flexible learning and assessment in a flipped university course. Computers and Education 88, 54-369.
Wood, L. N. and Smith, G. H. (1999). Flexible assessment. In: The Challenge Of Diversity, 2nd Symposium on Undergraduate Mathematics, Queensland Australia, November 1999. Online at: http://www.deltaconference.org/conferences/1999/Papers/wood_s.pdf