The power of research – why is it important for assessment?

by The Assessment Network, 01 February 2024
Abstract image of research and assessment

Embracing high-quality research can significantly enhance and guide decision-making across all phases of the assessment process. For this reason, The Assessment Network have launched a new workshop to help practitioners understand the fundamentals of research to empower their assessments.

In the context of assessment, research is an indispensable tool that can be harnessed to answer the questions most important to your practice.

At Cambridge, researchers use both qualitative and quantitative techniques to gain knowledge and understanding in areas like curriculum design and evaluation, assessment design and standard setting.

We spoke with the course trainers for the upcoming workshop: Understanding the fundamentals of research and research methods to empower assessment practices, Dr Sylvia Vitello, Dominika Majewska, and Emma Walland, about their research careers, and discussed why research remains a cornerstone of great assessment practice.

What made you decide to pursue a research career?

Dr Sylvia Vitello: I find being a researcher rewarding on many different levels. For example, it’s intellectually rewarding – I’m constantly having to think deeply about complex issues to do with educational topics and how to investigate problems or gaps in our understanding of them. My particular research environment also makes it a socially rewarding job. I often work with colleagues who are at the heart of developing and delivering assessments, which, I think, enriches the research I do.

Dominika Majewska: I started getting acquainted with research at the age of sixteen, when I chose Psychology as a GCSE option. Since then, I chose subjects with a research component, which led me to completing a Master’s degree in Research Methods in Psychology. I have always enjoyed what research offers: the flexibility of selecting your topic, the need to be focused, analytical and detail-oriented as well as the opportunities to collaborate with others. For me, research offers a variety, which I enjoy and feel challenged by.

Emma Walland: During my Honours studies in Psychology, we did a research project as a major component. It was the most enjoyable part of the course for me, I absolutely loved if. That’s when I realised that I had a passion for and strength in research, and I continued my Master’s studies in this area. I enjoy planning research, analysing data and contributing to the development of knowledge and theory. I have found that, as a researcher, I could have a lot of impact on society although perhaps in a slower and more indirect way. I am a person who loves to learn, and research enables me to continue this passion.

Why is research important for those working in assessment?

Dr Sylvia Vitello: Research is important at many stages of the assessment process because it’s fundamentally a tool to answer questions, which can help guide decisions. Research can help us explore questions we have about our assessments or questions that our stakeholders may ask us about them. What should we assess? What assessment methods should we use? Are my assessments working well? Should we change how our assessments are designed? And more…

Dominika Majewska: Research helps us uncover new things or clarify things we are not sure about. I think research is important in every field, be it medicine or assessment. Assessment practitioners can use research to answer questions they have, for instance: what benefits do formative and summative assessments have according to teachers? 

Emma Walland: I think research is important for education in general, of which assessment is a crucial part. Research can help assessment to be better and fairer and to evolve as society does, which can impact students and young people and improve our society.

Do you have any tips for someone starting a new research project?

Dr Sylvia Vitello: Take time to be as clear as possible about what the aims and purposes of your research project are and which specific research questions you want to investigate. That way you can keep going back to these three elements when planning your research because you’ll find yourself needing to make a lot of methodological and practical decisions.

Dominika Majewska: I would say - plan ahead. Think about what you need to do and by when. For example, if you were conducting a study with participants, you would need to send your ethics application for ethical approval before you start any of your data collection. Sometimes, you may need to edit your ethics application after receiving feedback from the Ethics Board, which takes time. So, planning what you need to do, how long each item might take and when you need to get things done by are very important, especially if you’re working towards a deadline.

Emma Walland: Like what Dom has said, I would say to spend a lot of time planning before you dive in. Spend time reading and exploring the literature first, which will strengthen your research design and, therefore, your findings. It is always useful to work in a team where you can bounce ideas off others and explore your own ideas and assumptions.

What research methods do you particularly use in your work?

Dr Sylvia Vitello: I’ve used a variety of quantitative and qualitative research methods during my time in Cambridge University Press & Assessment. Quantitative data is incredibly useful for many types of research questions, but I most enjoy using methods where I get to talk to people who use assessments (teachers, students, examiners) about their views and experiences. It’s usually very thought-provoking!

Dominika Majewska: I really enjoy using methods that allow me to get insight into people’s experiences, views and ideas, such as observations and interviews. I find these methods to be personable. Using interviews allows you to build rapport with your participants, and observations let you see how people are and what they might do (often in naturalistic settings). In qualitative methods, this is important. You want to get a true, transparent picture of what your participants are thinking and feeling, and I think that observations and interviews allow for this.

Emma Walland: I like doing a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods. I have done a lot of thematic content analysis in MAXQDA which I enjoy. I also really like statistical analyses and working with numerical data. The two approaches each have a lot of value to add to our understanding of something.

Why should assessment practitioners attend your upcoming workshop series?

Dr Sylvia Vitello: This series is designed to give assessment practitioners the opportunity to think critically about research. Assessment practitioners will spend their time reflecting with us on the fundamentals of research – e.g. what is research, what is it for and what does research quality mean? There’ll be a mixture of activities to do – some as whole groups, some in smaller groups, and some independently. Hopefully assessment practitioners will come away feeling more confident and inspired to engage with research and research evidence to support their assessment practices.

Dominika Majewska: To share their experiences and to hear about how other assessment practitioners might engage in research. Building communities and exchanging ideas can be very helpful to everyone. It can help to reassure, stimulate discussion and solve problems.

Emma Walland: For anyone who would like to start developing and enhancing their research skills, I think it’s a great place to start. You will come away with practical skills in critiquing existing research, which I think is vital for anyone, as well as skills in planning and thinking about your own research. 

The upcoming workshop series: Understanding the fundamentals of research and research methods to empower assessment practices is led by Cambridge experts from the Assessment Research and Development division and OCR.

The Assessment Network is part of Cambridge University Press & Assessment. We provide professional development for impactful assessment.

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