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04 Feb 2022

The Future is Formative: exploring assessment in Higher Education

The Future is Formative: exploring assessment in Higher Education

Matt Wingfield is Chief Executive for the eAssessment Association, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to advising policy-makers, awarding organisations, institutions and educators on the effective use of technology-enabled assessment. With 30+ years’ experience within education, Matt has built up significant understanding of the issues relating to the use of e-assessment within all phases of education.

We’re excited to welcome Matt to the Sandbox stage at Ahead by Bett on Friday 25th March, where he’ll be presenting alongside Purdue University on the use of adaptive comparative judgement to boost student learning. In advance of the show, we sat down with Matt to quiz him on the future of assessment in Higher Education.

Traditional forms of assessment have been radically disrupted in the last two years. What are the major changes we have seen?

The education sector has experienced a seismic change in the last two years, and each part of it has reacted differently. I think we’ve seen three distinct changes in Higher Education as a result of the pandemic.

Firstly, we’ve observed a switch to remote assessment delivery, where students can take exams at home using a computer. Remote invigilation has therefore become a big focus – I think there's a level of mistrust around remote assessment, but advanced technologies can flag suspicious behaviour that could indicate cheating. It’s become a viable option for Higher Education, so I’m keen to see how it’s applied moving forward.

Secondly, I think we’ve seen a shift from closed-book assessments towards open-book assessments, where the exam is less about recalling information and more about how that information can be applied in different contexts. This is particularly exciting because it changes the focus of what we are trying to assess.

And finally, the third is the scales beginning to tip in favour of formative assessments, whereby instead of being concentrated on just one big assessment event at the end of a course, we focus on smaller assessment checkpoints throughout. This allows us to better understand the learning progression for students throughout the duration of their course. As the pandemic has demonstrated, it can be better to track student learning outcomes on an ongoing basis rather than placing all hope on one single exam. But we may need to encourage a change in Higher Education culture to see the true value of these methods.


Culture is an interesting cornerstone to consider when talking about assessment. What role does culture play in how we view formative and summative assessment?

Culture does play a big role. I think in our current culture, students are very concerned with grades and therefore place greater value on summative assessment. Formative assessment can sometimes be viewed as less important, or less motivating than an end-of-year summative event. But I think it’s worth questioning some of these preconceptions. Traditional culture in Higher Education would point towards the professor as the source of all knowledge, but when we look at the skills students need today, it’s worth challenging whether the model of academic knowledge transmission and recall serves its intended purpose.

Academic knowledge transmission simply tests students on how good they are at retaining knowledge. I think that, instead, we need to try to shift our pedagogical model so that it’s more about the academic and the student working together on a progressive knowledge journey. By having more of a partnership-led approach to learning and assessment, students can take a more active role in their own learning. Formative assessment allows for much greater insight into what stage students are at, for themselves and also for the academic, so that if it becomes clear that a student is struggling you can intervene and remediate at an earlier point.


Do you think that embracing new approaches to assessment allows us to build skills that are more useful for today’s graduates?

I think this has been a conversation long before the pandemic, but the past two years have certainly shone a light on it. There is an increasing gap between what skill set employers want graduates to have when they leave university and what skills students actually leave with. I think that bridging that gap is all about helping academia to get better at supporting a wider range of skills for students that go beyond highly academic study. Clearly subject knowledge is important, and is what sets apart a degree course from an apprenticeship course, but I think there has to be a meeting between those two disciplines to give graduates the best possible chance at getting into a fulfilling career.

Students should finish university with a portfolio of soft skills, like collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving, which have traditionally been better developed in further education courses. Of course, lots of universities do offer employability support and degree apprenticeships, but I think we have an opportunity to use flexible approaches to assessment and to embrace more of an ‘assessment as learning’ approach in order to help build a more well-rounded graduate.


Do you think these new, flexible approaches to assessment will stick? Are we seeing lasting changes to Higher Education, or rather are these methods a band-aid to cope with the pandemic?

I think it’s difficult to talk about all the benefits of these new, disruptive forms of assessment without also acknowledging the challenges. There are two points to consider here. The first is that prior to the pandemic, generally speaking, many academics would be uncertain about using new technologies to support learning and assessment. But the pandemic forced everybody to embrace technology, and this in turn led to new insights into how assessment pedagogies could be used to facilitate a better understanding of where the students were in their learning.

Whilst some academics may still challenge this and have genuine concerns about increased workload, I think that digitising your assessments could actually save time for academics in the longer term, whether formative or summative. But we must not forget that this was a painful transition for educators, and came with a lot of pressure and stress. I think people’s nerves will still be raw to that, and there is a risk that educators will too readily fall back to what they were doing before the pandemic. But, at the end of the day, we need to prioritise pedagogical benefits to inform the way we teach our students. And that’s where all this flexibility can really pay dividends.

The short answer is: I'm not sure. If I'm being optimistic, then I think the benefits of a flexible approach for students and staff will become evident over time and will allow a hybrid model to evolve. In a perfect world, you’d have both face-to-face and virtual intertwined, like the analogy of the pen versus the keyboard. For example, I use my pen to handwrite stuff, but I also use my computer as well – I use whichever is appropriate to the task that needs to be done.

I hope that Higher Education will take up a hybrid model where you use a mixture of face-to-face assessment and online assessment where needed. Ideally it would become intuitive – checking in with students to see how they’re doing on a particular model of their course, running a quick quiz through the VLE, and so on, without too much fuss.


What are some of the roadblocks to embracing a hybrid approach to assessment?

Going back to culture, I think there are some interesting challenges that we need to overcome in order to support that kind of migration. The first, and probably the most important is around the student experience. A big motivation for many students enrolling is the social side of university, and that’s very difficult to replace with a virtual experience. I don’t think that’s a desirable model either, because it subtracts from that goal of coming up with a more rounded graduate at the end of the process. So, either way, both face-to-face and virtual learning and testing should be considered components of the overall student experience and should complement one another.

I think the other big challenge is the increased focus on tuition fees. There is an argument that says that if you are delivering learning virtually, then it shouldn’t be as expensive at the point of consumption for students as an in-person course. As a society we’ve move towards being able to consume content on demand when we want it – think Netflix or on-demand TV. Perhaps we’ll see some of that per transaction basis emerging in Higher Education, but in order to accommodate that universities will have to reconsider how they are funded. If universities continue to be entirely reliant on their tuition fees, that will put the brakes on change and innovation, because students will push back and question the value.

So, there’s a lot to unpack there, and a lot to keep in mind when we are considering how sustainable these online approaches are in the long term. However, I think there is a danger that if universities don't learn from the last couple of years and start to modernise their approach to learning and assessment that they they're going to lose business. Students will vote with their feet. And, either way, some of the advancements we’ve observed during the pandemic really do provide a better experience for the student – they give universities the tools to make learning more tailored to the individual rather than treating the student cohort as a homogenous group.


We’re looking forward to your session at Ahead by Bett in collaboration with Purdue University! What key takeaways can visitors expect to learn?

Every year the eAssessment Association invites submissions from all around the world as part of our annual awards. We look for examples of best practice anywhere technology is being used to support assessment within an education setting. Purdue University, in partnership with a UK-based assessment technology firm, submitted their entry to the best research category for our 2021 awards and were chosen as the winning submission for their research work called ‘Learning by Evaluating’. The judges particularly liked this project because it showed true innovation and evidenced a positive outcome across the student population.

Purdue used a piece of innovative assessment technology at the start of their lessons across a semester to give students a better understanding of what ‘good work’ was. This involved a quick and easy learning intervention which leveraged work from prior cohorts. The really interesting thing is that when they tested this tool on ~500 students, those who had used the assessment intervention achieved higher learning outcomes right across the ability spectrum compared with those who had not. And the most exciting thing about this project is that it is transferable – anyone could adapt it to fit their course, even if that meant adopting a paper-based approach, or using it in a highly subjective subject area. We’re hoping that visitors will be able to learn a lot from this project, and I would encourage anyone attending the show to come along and listen to Nathan from Purdue to find out a bit more.


One last question: What are you looking forward to at Ahead by Bett?

I’m excited to attend the first year of Ahead by Bett. I’ve been attending the Bett show since 1997, and it’s because I find the whole event a really positive experience. It gives you the opportunity to go along and find out about all of this new innovative stuff that's going on, which is really inspiring. I’ve not come across another event that is as good in terms of providing an innovation melting pot that allows you to go along, dip your toe, and get an understanding of what the true potential of technology. As an educator, it can be hard to get a grip of what’s happening outside your own institution – we all work in silos. The show gives you the opportunity to break out for a couple of days and just understand what's going on elsewhere.

My biggest piece of advice would be to do a little bit of planning before you visit – make a list of what topics are most important to you, look at the exhibitors and the programme of speakers and sessions, and figure out what your day looks like. Bett gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own practice and question whether there is anything you could incorporate to make it even better.


Matt WingfieldMatt will be presenting alongside Nathan Mentzer from Purdue University on The Sandbox at Ahead by Bett. Join us at the ExCeL London from 23-25 March 2022 to explore how Purdue secured the eAA’s 2021 Best Research Award for the work they did with undergraduate students. We’ll be hearing about their research strategy, their findings, and the new assessment protocol put in place for 2022.

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