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Changing assessment: embedding pedagogic innovation in a post-pandemic world

This article is part of the Education Espresso series hosted by Adobe pedagogical evangelist Mark Andrews and Wonkhe editor Debbie McVitty. Contributors included Tansy Jessop, pro vice chancellor for education, University of Bristol; Sam Elkington, principal lecturer (learning and teaching), Teesside University; and Leah Henrickson, lecturer in digital media, University of Leeds. 

Pens down, everyone. The exam is now finished. 


It’s a phrase that most of us are very familiar with. After all, traditional assessment is one of the most enduring and ubiquitous aspects of pedagogy. And since changing assessment requires insightful long-term strategies, pedagogic consensus and agreeable evaluation criteria, the process tends to be long and arduous. 


That is, until the pandemic turned the entire education industry on its head. Unable to continue with conventional methods, universities accelerated their rethinking of assessment, achieving maybe 30 years of advancement in a minimal timeframe. 


Now, we’re seeing a greater degree of programme-level change and student choice across the board as universities have been reimagining assessment and feedback policies. This includes the mobilisation of technology as a means for remote assessment, and an upturn in student submissions that deviate from traditional media. The University of the Arts London is a great example of one of the increasing number of forward-thinking institutions that are exploring decolonised assessment structures and compassionate approaches to assessment to drive greater freedom of student creativity. 


By offering assessments that more accurately reflect the working world, universities are creating a stronger link and portfolio between students’ academic and professional lives. This in turn adds greater value to their learning experiences, and equips the next generation with creative and digital literacy skills that will prove more useful in the workplace. 


But despite the positive changes to teaching and learning inspired by pandemic challenges, there’s a concern that in the ‘return to normal’, we could slide back into the status quo. While traditional assessment certainly has its merits, the industry must work to embed positive pandemic change and develop a culture that promotes innovation to achieve long-term results.

How has the pandemic driven change in assessment? 

While many universities have attempted to move traditional assessments online, the absence of a strict testing environment has led to a greater emphasis on slow assessment. This gives students the opportunity to consider and consult a range of sources during evaluation. The use of authentic assessment also permits a greater scope for reflection, thoughtfulness and refinement, and so more accurately reflects real-world writing and problem-solving tasks. 


This extends to authentic feedback, such as through an increase in the use of discussion boards and peer-to-peer communication. Students have used a range of digital tools to engage in criticism and creative discussion of their thoughts and ideas beyond the boundaries of assessment criteria. When combined with the ability to write in short bursts, this has created an authentic arena for learning to grow. 


As universities continue to recognise the value of these changes, the question becomes one of policy. How can we take advantage of these alternative perspectives and attitudes towards the types of assessment that provide the greatest benefits to learning? 


Tansy Jessop, pro vice-chancellor for education at the University of Bristol, proposes three Rs for handling assessment policy:


  • Replication: through the pandemic, universities have made efforts to digitally replicate their standard assessment procedures. However, this change doesn’t go both ways, and it’s a mistake to believe we can simply slide back to our previous approaches in a post-pandemic world. 
  • Reimagining: as a result, many educators have had to innovate in their attempts to reimagine assessment. This has led to a wide variety of alternative assessment options, and permanently changed the landscape of thought around what assessment could look like.
  • Recalibration: the issue now is defining which changes to keep and amplify, which to drop, and which aspects we’ve placed on pause that would be useful to bring back. For example, some courses might find that the absence of supportive resources in closed-book exams don’t adequately prepare students for their careers. Others might place a higher value on retained knowledge, where the internalisation of learning is essential.


But let’s not forget that changing policy isn’t simply a matter of changing assessment tasks. Sam Elkington, the leader of Teesside University’s learning and teaching enhancement portfolio, argues: “How we deploy those authentic tasks is just as important as what those tasks are themselves, because people’s post-pandemic realities aren’t the same as their pre-pandemic realities. So, we’ve got to have that flexibility and authenticity not just at task level, but to reflect the realities people are working in.” By reimagining assessment and feedback infrastructures in this way, we can properly equip students with the tools they need to flourish in a world beyond academia. 


The greatest risk to pedagogy is that of defaulting to previous methodology and losing the value of change. By failing to modernise policy appropriately, we could miss the opportunity to more closely align assessments with practical student needs.

Obstacles to changing assessment

Unfortunately, while the higher education sector might recognise positive changes to assessment, they are operating in a regulated environment. 


Rather than wait for the rest of the world to catch up, it’s the responsibility of universities themselves to retell the story of assessment change in their own terms. By raising awareness of the increase in quality blended learning and authentic assessment, we can help embed long-term change before old habits replace genuine progress. 


However, it’s important not to ignore internal resistance. Not all educators are embracing the increase in digital technologies and unorthodox assessment, and there’s no consensus on whether recent innovations are useful or viable. One common point of conflict is in defining criteria specific enough to meet academic rigour, but vague enough to mark assessment across a range of media. 


Therefore, to ensure the necessary frameworks, structures and resources to sustain long-term productive change, strong leadership is vital. Since 2020, many educators, faculties and universities have needed to innovate in their own ways to continue assessment under drastic circumstances. Now, we need to tie those loose threads together, and create a clear trajectory in recalibration that demonstrates the value of innovation. 


Similarly, teachers might resist the introduction of alternative assessment due to its profound impact on their approach to pedagogic practice. Innovation is a trial-and-error process that opens us up to failure. But in a culture that tends to punish failure, it’s easy to understand why innovation might seem intimidating. 


In addition to changing pedagogic policies, universities need to nurture a culture in which experimentation – and the failure that comes with it – is incentivised and celebrated. The opportunity to innovate, play and fail without repercussion can remove the fears surrounding unfamiliar practices. Some universities are already moving in this direction, with the University of East Anglia’s Biological Sciences course trialling a system of low-stakes failure. This type of attitude change can reduce the friction between how teachers have learned to approach pedagogy, and the potential for permanent evolutions in teaching, learning and assessment. 


But let’s not forget the most important group in the debate of changing assessment: students themselves. 


While slow and authentic assessment might promote the practical application of knowledge in working environments, a greater focus on technology and remote learning might be alienating. For students, the removal of pandemic restrictions didn’t just mean returning to education; it also meant returning to their social lives, and the chance to engage with their field of passion in an intimate setting. 


As such, it’s important to create a balance between the use of digital and conventional tools for authentic work and assessment, and offer a space for human support. Pedagogic change is a shared partnership experience between students and educational institutes. That means we’re responsible for helping them understand the significance of assessment change, as well as prioritising their needs over our own professional interests. 

Pedagogic change in action

A notable pioneer in post-pandemic pedagogic change is the University of Leeds. After becoming the university’s vice chancellor in 2020, Simone Buitendijk began implementing a 10-year strategy named Curriculum Redefined


The goal is to revolutionise student education, engaging them in an active and authentic learning experience shaped by both students and staff. Curriculum Redefined operates using digital-by-default assessment, taking assessment online to support remote learners and offer greater digital assistance to all. Using digital transformation to drive change and provide a more inclusive system of authentic assessment helps drive lifelong learning, and lays the groundwork for more problem-based curricula. 


However, the University of Leeds isn’t simply replacing one form of prescriptive assessment with another that’s more technologically advanced. Instead, the focus on digital literacy is being used as a springboard to ask questions about technology. According to Dr Leah Henrickson, the programme leader in Digital Media for the university’s School of Media and Communication: “We must think about how digital media are used, by whom, and why. These media don’t exist in isolation, and they’re certainly not neutral. They are after all, extensions of human intention. Really, we don’t just use digital media – we are those media.” 


Simply including digital media in assessment isn’t the key to progress. Rather, it’s a case of defining what kinds of digital media are relevant and useful to students, and knowing how digital media enables high-quality education

Embedding pedagogic innovation in a post-pandemic world

During the pandemic, change was made out of necessity. Now, it’s the responsibility of universities to ensure the most influential changes continue to evolve pedagogy in the long-term. 


There’s no single best way to develop students as learners. Instead, we can create an environment for growth by promoting flexibility and creativity in teaching, learning and assessment practices. To achieve this at scale, we need to have a clear, inclusive framework, and reach outside of the industry to build widespread interest and support. 


This is a pivotal and very experimental time for the future of pedagogy. And as digital transformation and authentic assessments continue to be refined, we can expect to see even greater shifts in pedagogic thinking within the next 10, five or even two years. 

Click here to watch the webinar this article is based on.