Why it is a good time to invest in your professional learning in assessment

by Simon Child, 20 May 2020
PGCA group photo

Dr Simon Child, co-director of the Postgraduate Advanced Certificate in Educational Studies: Educational Assessment (PGCA), gives his thoughts on how the course prepares students for the future of assessment. The PGCA is a collaboration between Cambridge Assessment Network and Cambridge University Faculty of Education.

Unprecedented challenges

The challenges COVID-19 presents to assessment organisations, regulators, schools and learners around the world are substantial.  Interestingly, however, it has also re-opened the debate about the future role of assessment, both in high-stakes testing and in ensuring good learning outcomes.

Debates have already begun about the relative contribution of teacher-based predictions on student grading outcomes for large-scale school qualifications.

Of course, we will eventually be able to look back and evaluate how effectively the assessment community responded to these challenges. It is hard to see us returning directly to what went on before - necessity will inevitably be followed by invention.

Debates have already begun about the relative contribution of teacher-based predictions on student grading outcomes for large-scale school qualifications. Moreover, in vocational and professional assessment, the merits, risks and sustainability of more flexible assessment practices are actively being explored.     

In my role as co-course director for the PGCA, I am already witnessing how students on the course are using their knowledge and skills to help their organisations adapt to the new assessment world in which we live. 

The PGCA has been designed to give students an exceptional grounding to contribute to whatever the future will hold in assessment.

The PGCA has been designed to give students an exceptional grounding to contribute to whatever the future will hold in assessment. This is particularly powerful in current times, as we all have to re-think our assessment approaches in the short term and in the years ahead.

Principled knowledge is essential in uncertain times 

What I think is particularly special about professional learning in the principles of assessment (e.g. validity, reliability and fairness) is that the conceptual leap between assessment theory and practice is small. 

When delivering assessment, we make perhaps thousands of decisions related to development, design, operations, standard setting, and evaluation. Having an evidence-based and principled framework can transform practice by guiding decisions and justifying them. 

Students tell me that the opportunity to ground their assessment-related decisions with reference to sound theory increases both their confidence and capability as an assessment specialist

The key principles of assessment are fundamental to all good assessment practice. This is covered in-depth in Unit 1 of the course and students apply this conceptual understanding by exploring how principles of assessment are utilised in assessment design and teaching. 

When I speak to students on the course, they tell me that the opportunity to ground their assessment-related decisions with reference to sound theory increases both their confidence and capability as an assessment specialist, as well as the quality of the assessments they create and use.  

A renewed focus and a flexible learning program

Some changes have been made to the PGCA for the 2020/21 intake of students, including the addition of a unit focusing on the futures of assessment. This gives students an opportunity to explore how the founding principles of assessment can and should be applied to new contexts. 

This additional unit also means the course is now worth 90 credits and upon completion, students have eligibility to apply for the part-time Transforming Practice MEd from the University Faculty of Education. This broadening of the course has ensured its relevance to anyone working in the field of educational assessment, and we are pleased to announce we have opened up to overseas applicants.

In the current climate, the opportunity to think deeply about these issues with respect to students’ professional contexts is highly valuable

The new course also offers increased flexibility. Students now have a choice of two options for Unit 2 to represent different professional interests. 

For Unit 2a, students can explore the different stages of assessment design and evaluation, whilst for Unit 2b, students can study how assessment for learning can be best implemented.

In the final part of the course, students explore several ‘big questions’ about the future of assessment, for example ‘what is the role of technology in ensuring the fairest assessment outcomes for students?’ In the current climate, the opportunity to think deeply about these issues with respect to students’ professional contexts is highly valuable to individuals and to their institutions. 

Anticipating the future of assessment

Any transformation will need to be grounded in sound theoretical and empirical knowledge to support its validity and ensure good social outcomes for learners

It is an open question as to which innovations will gain traction in the assessment marketplace, or in the classroom. What we do know is that any transformation will need to be grounded in sound theoretical and empirical knowledge to support its validity and ensure good social outcomes for learners. 

With these aims in mind, now is the time for assessment practitioners to invest in their professional learning, and the PGCA provides students with the tools to adapt to whatever assessment landscape they find themselves in.


Full details of the PGCA are available here, and if you have any questions you can email The Network to arrange a call with course co-director Dr Simon Child. Alternatively The Network's 9-week online courses, A101: Introducing the Principles of Assessment and A102: Introducing Assessment Practice offer a great introduction to, or refresher of, the key principles and practices of assessment.

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