What is assessment (at university)?
The term 'assessment' is used in a number of different ways as set out below, but most commonly it used to refer to the process of measuring and evaluating student learning by determining whether students have met required learning outcomes and the standard to which they have met assessment criteria.
Summative assessment is the process described above and is the formal evaluation of student learning that usually takes place at the end of a course module. It is used to measure student achievement within a module and to define whether a student has passed that module by meeting the required learning outcomes and assessment criteria. When the results of all modules taken within an academic year are taken into account they serve to define whether a student is able to progress to subsequent stages of a course (known as student progression).
Each assessment task within a module is marked according to a series of assessment criteria descriptors which define the different standards of performance required to meet the different grade bands and thus the overall grade a student will receive for an assessment task. Assessment criteria are usually broken down into different elements or skills relevant to the type of task in question. A typical set of assessment criteria used in a written or presentational assessment task at Cardiff Met will judge student work according to:
- Knowledge and understanding
- Presentation and communication
- Analysis and discussion
- Research and scholarship
Each of these elements may have a different weighting in different assessment tasks. A weighting refers to the extent (usually a percentage) the element contributes to an overall mark in relation to the other elements, for example a written assignment or essay may place a higher weighting on the knowledge and understanding and / or analysis and discussion demonstrated in a piece of work, where as an assessed presentation may place a higher weighting on presentation and communication. An assessor will 'grade' the performance demonstrated by a student in an assessment task in each of these elements which enables them to award an overall mark for the task.
As well as evaluating student learning, summative assessment is used to provide important and valuable feedback to a student in relation to the task. Such feedback will identify strengths and weaknesses demonstrated in a piece of work or task, specifically in relation to the different elements and skills by which the assessment task is being marked, but also more broadly in relation to common or general academic practices such as individual writing style, presentation of references and citations or perhaps overall construction of a critical argument. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the assessment process for a student as it is through tutor feedback that they are able to gain insight into areas of performance they can improve on in future assessments.
Section 1.04 of the Cardiff Metropolitan University Academic Handbook addresses specific policies and procedures surrounding assessment processes that are applicable to Cardiff Met students. Additionally examples of the standard Cardiff Met 'Grade Band Descriptors' (referred to above) applicable to each of the different levels of study can be viewed here:
Common types of summative assessment include:
- Examinations: Traditional written or online tests assessing knowledge and understanding of module learning material.
- Assignments / essays: Extended written assignments requiring in-depth analysis and critical thinking.
- Presentations: Oral or visual presentations where students communicate and defend their ideas.
- Coursework: Ongoing assignments or a portfolio that might include reports, projects or lab work which is completed throughout the course of a module.
- Group projects: Collaborative tasks assessing teamwork, research, and presentation skills.
- Dissertations / theses: Extended research projects demonstrating research, knowledge and understanding in a specific area.
- Multiple-Choice Tests: Assessments with predefined answer options that evaluate subject related factual knowledge or decision-making.
- Practical assessments: Practical evaluation often of skills or competencies in subjects like the sciences, health, sports or art. Often relevant in professionally oriented or vocational practice based courses.
- Viva voce: Oral examinations where students defend their research or knowledge in front of an examiner or panel.
Formative assessment is the process informal appraisal of student performance that takes place during a module. formative assessment takes many forms, but by definition does not confer a formal mark and does not therefore count towards your overall degree award. Rather, it is a means of providing feedback to students on their learning as they progress during a module. Its purpose is to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses, target areas in which they can improve, and make changes to their learning strategies. Formative assessment is a key aspect of the learning process at university and helps students to develop their learning more effectively and progress the skills required to be successful in passing a module and more broadly their course as a whole. Formative assessment is a key source for learning how to learn within a particular subject or topic area addressed within a module as it provides an opportunity to gain informal feedback directed specifically to the particular activities, skills and knowledge relevant to the subject, topic or disciplinary area of learning.
Types of formative learning, activities and assessment can include:
- Quizzes: Short quizzes can be used to assess learners' understanding of specific topics.
- Peer-assessment: Students evaluate and provide feedback on each other's work or presentations.
- Self-assessment: Students reflect on their own learning and progress.
- Classroom discussions: Lecture or seminar discussions allow for the formative and self assessment of understanding and criticality in relation to the topic matter.
- Concept mapping exercises: Creating visual representations of knowledge structures to assess connections and gaps.
- One-Minute Paper exercises: Students summarize key takeaways in one minute, revealing their learning comprehension and enabling them to identify any gaps in understanding.
- Group projects: Collaborative tasks offer informal feedback on skills related to teamwork, communication and subject knowledge.
- Think-Pair-Share exercises: Students think about a question, discuss it with a partner, and then share their thoughts with the class. A common form of lecture and seminar formative activity promoting self and peer assessment.
- Journaling: Reflective journals help students track their learning journey and self-assess.
- Concept Tests: Short assessments targeting specific concepts within a subject.
- Practice Problems: Assigning problems or exercises to practice and assess problem-solving skills.
- Muddiest Point exercises: Students identify the most challenging aspect of a lesson for clarification.
- Socratic seminar exercises: Guided discussions with open-ended questions that assess critical thinking.
- Classroom walks: Students walk around the classroom to view and discuss each other's answers to a question or challenge or perhaps examples of their work.
- Electronic questioning: Using electronic devices or phone apps to answer multiple-choice questions during lectures.
- Online polling: Quick electronic polls or surveys using devices or phone apps to check comprehension during remote or large group learning sessions.
- Scenario-based role play: Assessing practical application of knowledge through scenario-based simulated scenarios.
- Annotated portfolios: Students compile a collection of work with annotations explaining their growth and understanding over time.
Benefits of formative assessment include:
- Feedback for improvement: Formative assessments provide immediate feedback, helping learners identify their strengths and weaknesses during learning activities. Formative activities can help a learner to reflect in the moment and gain a fuller picture of how they can improve.
- Enhanced understanding and experience: Formative assessments encourage active engagement with module and course learning sessions, activities and materials, leading to a deeper understanding of important subject and topic areas.
- Self-awareness / metacognition: Through formative learning and assessment students gain insight into their own progress and can take ownership of their learning journey.
- Targeted revision: Feedback from formative assessments helps students focus their study efforts on areas where they are identified as underperforming and where additional study focus would be beneficial.
- Stress reduction: Frequent formative assessments can help in reducing anxiety associated with summative assessment by providing opportunities to practice key skills, test on important knowledge and understanding thereby making the overall learning process more continuous and manageable.
- Learning flexibility: Students can adjust their learning and independent study strategies based on the outcomes of formative assessment tasks.
- Problem-solving: Regular formative assessment can help in encouraging critical thinking and problem-solving skills both generically as well as in relation to particular areas of study.
- Motivation: Positive feedback from formative assessments can boost motivation and confidence in specific area of academic, disciplinary and professional practice.
- Communication: Formative assessments often involve presentations or discussions, offering opportunities to develop confidence and practice and thereby enhance communication skills.
- Continued learning: Formative learning and assessment can help instil ongoing habits of for continuous learning, which is valuable beyond formal education.
Why is it important to you?
As described above, a knowledge and awareness of how your assessment processes work and the standards you are expected to demonstrate stands you in a far better position to perform well in your assessed task. Responding to previous summative assessment feedback, developing your abilities in the different elements that comprise your assessment task criteria as well as evolving your ability to self-assess the current standard of your own work in relation to your assessment criteria grade descriptors will all aid in the overall development of your performances within your course assessments as you progress. This is a particularly important aspect of the first year of typical undergraduate courses (as it usually the case that only marks awarded in subsequent years count towards your final degree classification) where pro-actively developing your academic practice and its component academic skills in response to your own self-assessment as well as received feedback is central in providing you with a firm foundation in subsequent study years. By focusing early in your studies on 'nailing down', 'owning' or dare we even say 'mastering' key elements of your assessment performance, you will build confidence in your capability whilst also freeing your self up later in your studies to fully focus on the more critical and conceptual aspects of knowledge, understanding and practice within your subject area. Invest time in targeting common aspects of academic practice that arise within your assessment tasks for example: your wider subject knowledge and understanding, your ability to apply critical approach to your research and communicate it within your academic arguments and conclusions, developing your own academic writing style by exploring your authorial voice, as well as developing common subject or discipline specific understanding and competencies. All of this takes practice and repeated cycles of learning and assessment, but by pursuing it as a goal from the get go you will reap the rewards in the form of improved assessment performances sooner.
A key element of successful assessment performance is familiarity with relevant assessment documentation, use it to your advantage. Below are some tips and advice to help in that regard:
- Do not overestimate your ability to assume what is required to achieve good marks in an assessment. Doing so can lead to skipping important aspects of the assessment process, such as doing too little reading or failing to address the question coherently.
- If needed, ask your tutor where you can find the marking criteria. They will be able to direct you to a website where the criteria are posted or provide you with a copy.
- Invest time in examining assessment marking criteria prior to doing anything else. The statements in the upper band marking criteria will tell you exactly what assessors will be looking out for. Ensure your submitted assessment meets required standards by 'flagging up' the skills you need to demonstrate.
- Read the marking criteria carefully to be sure you understand what your tutor is looking for in your work. If unsure ask for clarification from them.
- Familiarise yourself with the vocabulary used to communicate the required critical skills and the expected standard of application. Use this vocabulary and / or closely related synonyms to signal your demonstration of them to your marker.
- Use assessment marking criteria to aid in planning the structure of a written assessment task. Consider how you can structure your work to address the different criteria.
- If you are able, work backwards from the criteria statements defining upper marking bands. Begin by writing chunked blocks, each using critical vocabulary to explicitly communicate your application of each of higher order skills you are required to evidence.
- Review your assessment against the marking criteria before you submit it. This will help you to identify any areas where your work could be improved.
- If not provided by your tutor, request exemplars of previous written assignments that have been marked using the same assessment marking criteria. Use the marking criteria to practice assessing these yourself. This will help you more accurately self-evaluate the standards of your own work.
- Familiarise yourself with the process an assessor goes through when marking by applying marking criteria to exemplars. Consider where the work meets the criteria and how it evidences this and also identify criteria standards that are not met - consider how it might have been improved.
- Use the marking criteria to self-evaluate the standard of drafts of your own work. Do this when you have had a break from writing it in order to see your work with fresh eyes and with less attachment to the recent work you have put in. Aim to be objective and brutally honest about how well your work meets the upper bands of marking criteria and consider how you might develop it further.
- If you are unsure about how to apply the marking criteria or how to meet the standards contained in the upper marking bands approach your tutor for help.
- By applying marking criteria you are better able to identify the standards of subject knowledge, criticality and written communication that your markers will look for as well as the processes involved in recognising it. Doing this will develop your ability to evidence that you are meeting upper marking band standards.
- When evaluating exemplars, practice identifying how a piece of work communicates the application of critical skills at high standards. How does structure, vocabulary and writing style explicitly and implicitly signal the subject knowledge and critical abilities of the author? In what way to they communicate an academic authorial voice?
- As highlighted above with regard to the way in which standards of criticality are communicated in assessment criteria, there are valuable benefits to your learning and assessment performance to be gained by developing your ability to apply relevant vocabulary, terminologies and broader language styles used within a specialist subject area. Appropriate use of discipline specific language implicitly signals a certain level of subject specialist knowledge, experience and ability.
- However, be careful to ensure you fully understand the context specific meaning and application of specialist terminologies. Whilst successful application of language signals expertise, the opposite is even more true in that incorrect use of such language will instantly reveal gaps in specialist knowledge and experience.
- When using either subject specific terms or vocabularies of criticality to signal you are operating at a particular standard ensure you are doing so explicitly and with clarity. Do not fall into the trap of leaving it to your marker to assume you are working at the higher assessment standards by being only implicitly implying you are doing so. Use concise and obvious verbal explanations and statements of how your work evidences it is meeting the standards communicated in the marking criteria.
- Do not underestimate the value of developing an advanced disciplinary knowledge. Invest time in researching and constructing your own subject knowledge architecture which maps and defines influential discoveries, theories and concepts alongside their relevant authors, publications and the wider impacts they made in progressing academic understanding of your discipline. This aids in deeper levels of learning through recognition of the interrelated character of structural knowledge which serves also to evidence strong abilities in core academic practices / assessment criteria.
- Demonstrate a depth of disciplinary knowledge by identifying and where relevant, using key publications and ideas proposed to evidence your academic claims. Like subject-specific terms, doing so flags a confidence and command of discipline defining knowledge.
- Highlight your recognition and engagement with fundamental evaluative processes that support the critical nature of academic investigation. In particular adhering to sources of peer reviewed specialist knowledge as well as the use of powerful database search tools demonstrates respect for academic due process as a means of upholding standards of academic rigour and integrity.
- Always aim to search for and use academic literature that has been subject to the peer-review process. It offers valuable benefits to the criticality of your own academic practice and thus your assessment performance: It is far more likely to be accurate and reliable; it will reflect contemporary academic research priorities, theories, gaps in understanding, issues and debates; it serves in contributing to and validating the ongoing socially constructed creation of new academic knowledge as agreed by the wider academic community, underpinned by the expertise they hold and ratified by the peer review process.
- Additionally the peer-review process is invaluable in enabling the wider academic community to identify underlying and implicit biases which may skew findings and conclusions drawn or worse still draw conclusions that are not only incorrect but also unethical or immoral and potentially damaging to society. In identifying and rejecting academic research and conclusions distorted by biases, the peer review process in turn enables your own learning, understanding and practice to remain free of bias.
- Drawing on literature that is agreed as offering rigour and value in its findings communicates your own credibility as an academic researcher in that it is a key means of establishing trust in your methods and findings from readers of your work, this in turn can serve to amplify the global and cultural reach and thus the wider impact of your own research practice, a key aim for any academic researcher!