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Busting myths on alternative assessments

October 2019

Exams and essays aren't the only ways to assess students' progress - and research at the Manchester Institute of Education debunks many of the myths that surround alternative methods

Is the age of the traditional academic assessment - the essay and exam - finally coming to an end? The rise of essay banks (or mills) from which students can download ready-made essays, or have them written for cash by external agents, is beginning to pose a threat to the integrity of these methods.

On top of this, the employability agenda obliges us all to develop transferable skills in learners as well as just disciplinary knowledge. Few students will graduate into jobs or professions in which they have to write an essay. But graduates who are skilled at writing for public engagement, at presentations and public speaking, or at using a range of online spaces for collaboration and teamwork - these are more marketable skills in the 21st century job market, and indeed in community life and democratic participation.

Yet essays and exams are hard habits to break. There are many alternative forms available, many of which are of long standing, but various myths exist around them. They are 'too much work'. Professional and academic regulators will turn their noses up at them. They are 'soft' and cannot test important disciplinary knowledge. Perhaps most damagingly, with eyes ever on the National Student Survey, 'students don't like them'.

But is there any foundation to these myths? When we started to look into this a couple of years ago at The University of Manchester, we discovered that most of the evidence one way or another was anecdotal. While plenty of work had been done on the pedagogical justification for assessing students with, say, a group presentation, across our institution no one really knew how the students felt about this, or whether this saved academics' time.

Essays and exams are hard habits to break. There are many alternative forms available, many of which are of long standing, but various myths exist around them

Small details like, in this case, how long it took to book rooms - which might actually be a crucial point in turning someone against changing habits - were mysteries. Hence our project, funded by the Centre for Higher Education Research, Innovation and Learning, was completed to understand some of the motivations and barriers for using alternative forms of assessment.

The study was conducted between September 2018 and February 2019 within The University of Manchester. Working across three faculties (with around 40,000 enrolled students) we deployed a staff survey (84 respondents) and requested case study examples to follow during their application of alternative forms of assessment (18 completed).

Within the case studies, academic colleagues completed an interview before delivering the assessment, a week-by-week diary of time spent on the assessment, and then a final interview after marking the assessment. These two methods (survey and narrative accounts) allowed us to explore academic perceptions and motivations for using alternative assessment in their academic practice.

We defined alternative assessment as being non-essay and non-exam format, but ultimately non-traditional to the discipline in which it was required. For example, a lab report might be deemed traditional assessment in science disciplines, but not in humanities. To clarify, examples of alternative assessment forms seen at The University of Manchester offered to our study are listed below:

  • presentations (virtual, physical, using a variety of mediums)
  • performances or role play
  • evaluating flash cards
  • discussion boards
  • lab Reports
  • posters (again physical or virtual using different software and integrated production elements like videos)
  • technical reports
  • group testing
  • peer assessment
  • portfolios,
  • visual (photo or film production created or in review of academic theory)
  • artwork
  • integrated exams (assessment across units)
  • online examination (oral and written) with time limits for each question.

Although our study was exploratory in seeking an understanding on alternative assessments, we also felt this area was particularly important in consideration of the increasing essay mills and banks whereby students are purchasing their assessments for submission in higher education. It is accepted that not all students will purchase their essays for submission, but creating alternative forms of assessment will naturally reduce this possibility.

Here are the five myths about alternative assessments that we considered:

Myth 1: They don't allow students to show full academic knowledge

The case studies analysed allowed greater opportunities to help students develop and display knowledge valued by employers and professional bodies. By requiring students to use skills to apply academic knowledge in a variety of mediums and contexts, their level of knowledge was perceived by their tutors as increased.

Alternative methods helped students relate theoretical knowledge to practical and 'real-world' situations which, in turn, supports their graduate transitions (to work, travel or further study). Referencing and synthesising the literature can still be addressed by alternative methods (even in a selfie!).

Myth 2: They take more time to instruct and mark

Time spent by each academic instructing and supporting the alternative assessment varied in this study from 3 to 187 hours over one term (12 weeks of teaching). The time required was seen as due to both the form of alternative assessment and the number of students enrolled on the unit. For example, a portfolio submission with five submission dates and over 400 students took longer to support and mark than a one-minute YouTube Video with 32 students (three minutes to mark each).

Creation of the marking criteria and mark sheets was noted as taking additional time when delivering the assessment for the first time. This was due to the assessment being a new form and not repeated from previous years, rather than it being more difficult to organise. Colleagues who were using the same alternative assessment in a following year, did not need to repeat this time as their marking criteria was already clear and available (as may be the same for traditional forms of assessment).

Myth 3: They are only used by new (or young?) academics

From the survey results, new academics are eager to try alternative forms of assessment, but they lack confidence to create and manage these. Colleagues working for more than 20 years in university education are more likely to have tried alternative forms of assessment.

There is a perceived difficulty in creating alternative assessments and they are even seen as risky compared with a traditional essay or exam. However, the passion and interest in these was level across our data. The barrier to creating these is seen in unit creation in the assignment description being either narrow (e.g. a 1,500 word essay) and not flexible or open (e.g. coursework to the length of around 1,500 words).

Flexibility in unit description of assessment requirements would naturally allow for academic freedom and creation of more alternative assessment (or change these yearly to suit professional academic practice and development).

Myth 4: Students don't like them

Students are often apprehensive about alternative methods before instruction on the assessment requirements. However, colleagues noted that as long as students are offered clear support and guidance, the impact on the student experience is seen as positive. This was noted as being a fear of the unknown, rather than a fear of using different mediums.

Using technology was seen to increase student motivation in completion of their assignments and were often asked to present to their colleagues on how best to use them in creation of the assessments.

Myth 5: External accrediting bodies and examiners don't like them

Where relevant, professional accrediting bodies were not only supportive of alternative methods but in some cases had actively encouraged their use. External examiners were likewise supportive and highlighted alternative assessment as examples of best practice within programmes.

Generally, there were no external barriers for development and delivery of alternative assessment.

The five myths busted in this article offer support to academic colleagues (and employers and students) who want to develop innovative assessment for their programmes of study. We are looking to investigate this further across a range of UK universities to uncover more understandings of and perceptions on alternative assessment. If you're interested, please tweet us a selfie!

Researchers on this project presented at the AGCAS annual conference and will be presenting at SRHE in December 2019. For further details on the study please contact Drew Whitworth, Miriam Firth or Jo Bragg at the Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester.

 This workshop was delivered at the AGCAS Annual Conference 2019, which took place in Manchester during the first week of September. You can view and download content from other workshops delivered at the conference.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects.

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