#LTHEChat 264: Confident Assessment with Rachel Forsyth @rmforsyth

A lightbulb radiating sympols of education instead of light. The variety of symbols represent different disciplines such as microscopes for biology as well as more general icons such as a graduation cap.
Image by Harush Sharma on Pixabay

Assessment of student learning is a key aspect of all forms of education that lead to a qualification or other recognition of achievement. It can be a complex and fraught topic, associated with anxiety and pressure for both teachers and students. Boud (1995) considers the ways in which assessment is used as a control mechanism in assessment; while he focuses on the control of student behaviours, it also has a powerful effect on teachers. The current marketing and assessment boycott in the UK, and universities’ responses to it, expose the challenges of managing fairness, reliability and validity and maintaining expertise and confidence in the assessment process.  

For the individual involved with assessment, confident assessment starts with understanding enough about assessment processes to know that it is impossible to be 100% sure, or confident, about any part of them. This sounds counterintuitive, but fully understanding your own limits can be strangely liberating. A confident assessor understands that there is no perfect way to assess: there should be a good way for the context at hand, which is worth finding, but there is no magic formula.  

You don’t have to be actually managing the assessment to contribute to it: successful assessment needs the contribution of many university colleagues, as well as students’ active participation. The Assessment Lifecycle (adapted from Forsyth et al, 2015) shows the different stages of an assessment, and it requires many colleagues in departments and professional services to contribute for everything to work. 

An 8 stage cycle, titled the Assessment Lifecycle.  
Stage 1: Specifying  
Stage 2: Setting  
Stage 3: Supporting  
Stage 4: Submitting  
Stage 5: Marking and production of feedback  
Stage 6 Recording grades  
Stage 7 Returning marks and feedback  
Stage 8: Reflecting
8-Stage Assessment Lifecycle (Adapted from Forsyth et al, 2015)

And yet traditionally, it is often considered as a solitary pursuit both for students and for their tutors. Students are mostly set individual assignments by which teachers judge their personal performance; talking to peers about these assignments is a sensible thing to do, in terms of personal and professional development, but there may be hint of collusion if this discussion becomes public. In some cases, there may be a competitive edge to the assessment which precludes sharing ideas with others. Or perhaps the assessment is being completed at the last minute, under pressure, and the student feels alone in this challenge.  

Once students have done their part and completed their assigned work, marking (grading) of assignments is largely done by individual tutors working alone. There are exceptions, such as when marking event-based activities such as presentations, performances, or exhibitions, but reviewing students’ work may be seen as something one locks oneself away to complete. It may also be presented by tutors as a difficult and unpleasant chore to be completed before other, more engaging, activities may ensue. This image of assessment as a practice which is carried out behind closed doors and endured by all parties is at odds with modern ideas of inclusive curriculum design, digital collaboration, transparency, authenticity, and professional practice.  

In this chat, we will try to gently explore some apparently fixed ideas about assessment and what it might take to aspire to feeling confident and creative enough to break out of some of the fixed ideas about assessment. A good place to start is to think about purpose: why is this assignment being set? This will help you to decide what elements of the assignment are most important, how to manage grading, and how to ensure that feedback is fit for purpose. Of course, any assignment may have multiple purposes, and some may be unintended: it is a good idea to think about which ones you value. Here are some possible purposes; maybe you can think of more: 

1. To judge current competence2. To judge current knowledge3. To judge capacity for future learning
4. To encourage focus on particular aspects of the curriculum5. To reward the meeting of teacher expectations6. To accredit a minimum level of professional competence
7. To differentiate performance among students8. To validate the effectiveness of teaching9. To permit progression on to the next level of study
10. To permit award of a final qualification11. To demonstrate maintenance of academic standards12. To identify areas for individual future development
13. To recognise an ability to follow instructions14. To recognise the ability to perform under pressure15. To confirm that intended learning outcomes have been achieved
16. To build student confidence17. To reduce the number of students on the course18. To judge teacher competence in preparing students for assessment
Table 1: multiple purposes of assessment (from Forsyth, 2022)

References and recommended reading

Boud, D. (1995). Assessment and Learning: contradictory or complementary? In P. Knight (Ed.), Assessment for Learning in Higher Education (pp. 35–48). Kogan Page. available at  http://www.education.uts.edu.au/ostaff/staff/publications/db_9_boud_seda_95.pdf  

Campbell, P. I. (2022). ‘Pray(ing) the person marking your work isn’t racist’: racialised inequities in HE assessment practice. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2022.2119075  

Forsyth, R., Cullen, R., Ringan, N., & Stubbs, M. (2015). Supporting the development of assessment literacy of staff through institutional process change. London Review of Education, 13(34-41). 

Forsyth, R. (2022). Confident Assessment in Higher Education. SAGE. (Sorry – terrible self-promotion. For a discount: Go to the publisher’s site, add your book(s) to shopping basket, wnter discount code: UK23AUTHOR at checkout) 

Nieminen, J. H. (2022). Assessment for Inclusion: rethinking inclusive assessment in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-19. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.2021395 

O’Donovan, B. M., den Outer, B., Price, M., & Lloyd, A. (2021). What makes good feedback good? Studies in Higher Education, 46(2), 318-329. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1630812   

Race, P. (2019). The lecturer’s toolkit: a practical guide to assessment, learning and teaching (5th ed.). Routledge.  

Simper, N., Mårtensson, K., Berry, A., & Maynard, N. (2021). Assessment cultures in higher education: reducing barriers and enabling change. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2021.1983770   

Tai, J., Ajjawi, R., & Umarova, A. (2021). How do students experience inclusive assessment? A critical review of contemporary literature. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2021.2011441 


Rachel Forsyth is an educational developer who works at Lund University in Sweden as a project manager, reviewing the pedagogic aspects of digital education development and the University’s framework for appointments and promotions of academic staff. Her recent book, Confident Assessment in Higher Education, is intended as a practical, theory-informed resource for anyone in the higher education sector. She is a Principal Fellow of the HEA and has taught on postgraduate programmes for teaching in higher education for twenty years, including leading a specialist module on assessment. She is a member of the Degree Standards Project team which has explored sector-owned processes for professional development of external examiners in the UK since 2017. As Editor-in-Chief of the Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal since 2017, she is an active member of the Researching, Advancing, Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE) network.

Missed the chat?

No problem, here’s a curated collection of the tweets so you can review and participate at a time that suits you.

About Beck McCarter

Passionate about improving both the staff and student experience, I am an Education Consultant and Team-Based Learning Evangelist
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