The thoughts of an expert academic on meaningful assessment

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In this article, I report from a conversation with Lisa Wakefield who talks about meaningful assessment from both a staff and student perspective. At the time of talking, Lisa was an Associate Professor – Curriculum Review at De Montford University and teaching Level 6 Accounting and Finance in the Business School. After 11 years at De Montford (where she also held the positions of Associate Head of Department and Programme Leader), she has now taken up the post of Associate Dean – Learning and Teaching at the University of Leicester. Her student perspective comes from being a Doctor of Education (EdD) candidate here at Oxford Brookes.

I got started by asking Lisa what she thought was needed to make assessment ‘meaningful’ and what it looks like in her subject area.

“For me, assessment is only meaningful if it has value to you as an academic and value for students. Students need to recognise the reason that you’ve set the task and realise the significance for them and their development. Assessments need to have an academic underpinning as well as embedding employability and social skills.

In my subject area, there are strong PSRB [professional statutory and regulatory body] requirements and for my students assessment is all about their future employability as graduate trainees.

From my point of view, when graduates leave university they go ‘with my name attached’ so it’s about doing them proud and providing them with the skills and aptitudes to be able to get the jobs or role that they want to. I want to give them the ability to be employed rather than a specific skill.

“I feel there’s three criteria I want to meet: 1) academic underpinning and technical knowledge; 2) employability skills and 3) the knowledge of how and they’re going to use those skills in their role.”

I feel there’s three criteria I want to meet: 1) academic underpinning and technical knowledge; 2) employability skills and 3) the knowledge of how and they’re going to use those skills in their role. Examples of assessments I’ve used include podcasts, posters and academic reports. I have run podcast assignments for the last four years. I ask the students to consider a contemporary issue impacting the financial reporting world, such as the pandemic, big data or crypto-assets.

Regarding evaluating assessment, we need to ask, what do we consider as success? It’s a difficult question. Success is probably measured longitudinally and should be viewed in the longer-term. However, I think that setting assessments which push students to work outside of their comfort zone allows them to grow and develop. If students just do what they have always done then they don’t grow. I often try to explain this to my students by thinking about blowing up a balloon. When you first try to blow up a balloon it’s a challenge to get that first breath into it to make it expand but after that first uncomfortable point where you think you will never be able to blow it up it gets easier. Once the balloon is full if you then let the air out it doesn’t return to the original starting size and trying to blow it up a second time is much easier. This is exactly the same position for students trying new assessment methods. Once they get past the initial “I can’t do this!”, “Why did she ask to us to do this?” point they find that they enjoy the format as much as the topic. I’ve also had comments at graduation about how much they have learnt about themselves in the process and how they have taken the confidence from doing these tasks into job interviews and other assessments.

As an EdD student I think it’s about matching my expectation with what I’m being asked to do and thinking about how that leads to influencing my daily practice as an educator.”

I am interested in whether assessment motivates or engages Lisa and why

“I think all academics make keen students. We consider assessment to be an opportunity to measure yourself against a standard and identify whether you meet that expectation or whether you’re missing the mark.

When creating assessments, we need to recognise that there is a balance required in the language we use between the expected professional register and plain English. We need to appreciate for many students studying in the UK English is not their first language and this creates complexities in terms of understanding terms as well as language use. I am dyslexic so anything where there is a large written element has anxiety associated with it and I try to consider this viewpoint and the support I’d like to see when I create assessments.

Most importantly I think we need to consider assessment with a notion of compassion – it’s not about setting students up to fail or showing their weaknesses but giving them an open forum to showcase their ideas. 

I worry that many students consider assessment to be of learning not for learning and that they are driven by the mark obtained not the learning process. If the score is what students expected then their feedback doesn’t matter; if the mark is lower than they wanted then their engagement with feedback is even less.”

How can we connect student assessment and student learning?

“I have a science background and therefore I approach assessment in an empirical manner. I find it really hard to respond to the recurring question from students about, ‘Is this on the test?’ without explaining that the “test” isn’t really the point of the taught content. As academics we need to strike the balance between students’ learning that some topics are important for their future development and the short-term need for immediate knowledge because it will be on the test. 

I feel in the same position as them sometimes because I am a student too and have to juggle my family commitments just like they have to juggle their own commitments. However, it’s that recognition that you’re not paying for an outcome but an opportunity to learn. A student who has been in Higher Education for three years might legitimately say, ‘I’m not paying £30K to walk away with a 2:2’ but that is like saying you’re paying for gym membership and not getting any benefit. You need to actually go to the gym and engage with the equipment. 

I recognise that this is hard with higher education being by driven by competition such as league tables (something which starts in the school sector now too). However, we need to remind ourselves that we are doing what we do for the students’ benefit not the university’s.

Again, there’s a balance to be struck between supporting and engaging students, and equipping them with skills for the working environment. The pandemic had a very interesting effect on where we put emphasis in terms of these sometimes competing objectives and outcomes.”

What would you most like to ask your students about meaningful assessment? 

“What do they think it is? I was caught out once when teaching ethics to a group of second year students. We did a seminar using case examples of business ethics situations and considered how they could be resolved. At the end of what I thought was a pretty good seminar, a student asked when we could cover ‘real life’ situations in seminars. I explained that I thought we had but she meant her ‘real life’ as in the upcoming exams. What we as Academics feel is meaningful doesn’t always match with the student perception.

We also need to remember that the situation of all students and cohorts differ. We currently have students in their final year who have not sat exams since their GCSEs and this brings its own challenges. What is right for one group doesn’t mean it is right for the cohort in the following year. A lot has been done recently with student consultations on assessment and there has been an increase in co-created content. Much of the work raises questions on whether students have to present in a particular format. Does an essay have to be written? Could it be a picture essay or a video essay meeting the same learning outcomes? The format of assessment has really changed over the past ten years with non-grading and innovative assessment strategies as well as continual assessments which create a safe space for students to fail and learn from that experience.”

So, as a result of this conversation, what new insights have you gained? 

“The graduate population is going into a very different world where they will face many more challenges. Whatever we design has to prepare them for this.”

“Everything is changing as a result of the pivot to online teaching and learning caused by the pandemic. Assessment and feedback is all part of that. The graduate population is going into a very different world where they will face many more challenges. Whatever we design has to prepare them for this. For example, within auditing we are seeing the use of cameras and drones to undertake stocktakes and our graduates will need the skills to understand how to interpret these results. Last year was still ‘emergency mode’ but come September 2023 we need to move out of that phase and take what we have learnt from the online lockdown period and embed it into our everyday practice.”

To close, seven tips are offered. Assessment is most meaningful if it:

  1. Has value to you as an academic 
  2. Enables students to recognise why they’re doing it
  3. Has an academic underpinning 
  4. Has employability and social skills embedded within
  5. Has its success is evaluated long-term
  6. Constructively places students outside of their ‘comfort zone’
  7. Is inclusive by, for example, balancing the expected professional register and ‘plain English’
  8. Prepares students for the challenges of the current world of work.

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About the authors

  • Ben W. Walker

    Ben W. Walker is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Development at the Oxford Centre for Academic Enhancement and Development (OCAED) at Oxford Brookes University where he supports colleagues to gain fellowship of Advance HE, delivers staff development, leads on the university’s oversight of Academic Advising and undertakes educational research projects. As co-author of practitioner texts and journal articles on personal tutoring/academic advising, and doctoral researcher on student support informed by critical pedagogy, he is at the forefront of professional development and research in this area and is committed to developing it further.

  • Lisa Wakefield

    Lisa Wakefield is an academic working in Accounting and Finance at a large East Midlands University. She is passionate about ensuring that student assessments match technical knowledge and soft skills to ensure students have the ability to flourish after graduation.

How to cite

Walker, B. W. and Wakefield, L. (2022) The thoughts of an expert academic on meaningful assessment. Teaching Insights, Available at: https://teachinginsights.ocsld.org/the-thoughts-of-an-expert-academic/. (Accessed: 30 November 2022)

Post Information

Posted in Edition 2, In Conversation