Why boosting student assessment literacy could have an impact on feedback results

by Simon Child, 09 October 2023
A smiling University student holding some books

Could improved student assessment literacy have an impact on their perception of assessment fairness in Higher Education? Dr Simon Child, Head of Assessment Training for Cambridge Assessment Network argues that there is more to be done.

A recent Times Higher Education article on the UK's annual National Student Survey (NSS) this year revealed that some otherwise high performing institutions score comparatively poorly across the five main questions related to assessment and feedback. 

In the article, Dr Camille Howson suggested that these Universities might be taking a ‘tough love’ approach with their students, favouring academic challenge and independence over providing a supportive assessment culture within institutions. Though more evidence would need to be collected to verify that claim, there is always more that can be done to improve student assessment literacy, and in turn improve student perception of assessment feedback.

Understanding Assessment

One primary issue is that despite the best efforts of faculties and the NSS, the utility of NSS questions rely on students having a well-developed sense of assessment and feedback literacy. For example, let’s look at a question from the NSS questionnaire:

1) How fair has the marking and assessment been on your course? 

Very fair | Fair | Not very fair | Not at all fair | This does not apply to me

For this question to offer any insight into the true quality of the provision, students need to have a well-rounded understanding of assessment. For example, they need to understand the expectations of the performance standards of individual assessments. This includes knowledge of the assessment design and assessment process, (e.g. how marking is standardised), and awareness of accessibility and other arrangements that contribute to overall assessment fairness. 

Without this understanding, students may be likely to base their response to this question on factors which only have a loose connection to actual assessment fairness, (e.g. the grades students achieved).

Communication, Communication, Communication

A second issue is that there needs to be a strong line of communication between the university and students concerning the purposes of assessment and feedback. Take a second example from the NSS survey below:

2) How often does feedback help you to improve your work?

 Very often | Fairly often | Not very often | Rarely | This does not apply to me

For students to respond to this question positively, lecturers first need to be consistent in stating the purpose for each individual feedback ‘event’. 

Work by Naomi Winstone, Neil Winstone and Robert Nash has identified that feedback can serve several functions including: orienting students to the expected performance standards; enabling reflection with an expectation of improving later performance; or to build student confidence or motivation. 

If students understand the purpose of assessment feedback, they can reflect on how well these purposes have been met. They can also recognise their active role in the assessment and feedback process, and focus their attention not on their emotional reaction to feedback, but on how it contributes to future learning – their feedback literacy.

Communication and management of assessment in Higher Education

Understanding the mechanisms that contribute to positive interactions with assessment and feedback is a fundamental aim of a new workshop series we have developed at Cambridge Assessment Network.

Effective assessment design and delivery in Higher Education has been designed for anyone responsible for assessment design and teaching. If you want to learn more you can watch our free webinar on the topic.

By the end of the two-week training course (four live two-hour workshops), participants will be equipped with an approach for managing and communicating assessments to students in higher education.

By the end of the four workshops, successful participants will be able to:

  • Critically explore approaches to HE assessment design to support a positive and transformative student assessment experience.
  • Select approaches to assessment design to meet learning outcomes and the considerations of the co-curriculum.
  • Reflect on multiple stakeholder assessment experiences and expectations to inform assessment practice.
  • Design and construct an assessment communication plan to support the module delivery and management of an assessment.
  • Explore opportunities to measure the impact and effectiveness of an overall assessment approach and its impact on performance and KPIs.

The workshop series kicks off on 13 November. Find out more and book your place.

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