In an increasingly digital world, the skills that students require to succeed in employment are changing but assessments within education settings are not. In this blog, Dr Drew Whitworth discusses the potential pitfalls of traditional forms of assessment, such as essays and exams, which focus on information retention instead of application, and highlights how practice-based assessment may provide a solution.
- Traditional forms of assessment usually test retention of knowledge whereas project-based assessment focuses on a learner’s ability to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world scenarios.
- Essays and exams are challenged by the growth of digital and online technologies as some learners choose to use essay mills and banks to achieve their desired grades, which undermines the assessment.
- Although essays and exams are valuable, project-based assessment may have more integrity in the digital world and might be more useful to employers who want to know that learners have the skills required for work.
The traditional role of assessment has been to demonstrate mastery of disciplinary knowledge. The common methods are the examination, which tests recall and on-paper problem solving, and the essay, testing how well the learner can synthesise and articulate knowledge. But while these methods may effectively test the ‘know-what’ of an intellectual domain and require the application of some generic skills (such as numeracy), they are less effective when testing a learner’s ability to apply that knowledge in a domain of practice — that is, the ‘know-how’. There’s still a perceived hierarchy of assessments, rooted in gendered and classist thinking. Yet arguably, less traditional, project-based assessments, whether conducted off or online, allow the learner to demonstrate skills more relevant to their future employment. So, is it time to move beyond the standard model of online essays and exams?
Traditional versus practical forms of assessment
Research into workplace and community learning has identified its social and practical character. Whether one is applying one’s learned knowledge within a business, a social enterprise or a sports club, to work effectively, one must be able to gather information, make judgments about its relevance and communicate these understandings to others. In most practice settings, one will never need to write an essay, but must present information in different ways, whether to a client, colleague, or member of the local community. Increasingly, this will take place through some kind of digital medium.
Such work requires good communication skills and the ability to work as part of a team, and these are often declared by employers to be important graduate outcomes, yet the standard approach to assessment overlooks them. Policy that lauds the essay or exam at the expense of more practical forms of assessment — such as presentations, project work, group activities, performances and the use of alternative publishing media like blogs — is thus doing learners a disservice. Exams and essays do not offer opportunities for students to develop, demonstrate and — importantly — have validated the communicative and teamwork skills necessary to be an effective practitioner.
Assessment is not just an outcome of pedagogy and course design, but a response to policy. What we assess, and what learning outcomes we thereby accredit, is a significant means by which learning is influenced and directed, on a societal scale. The current disconnection between traditional modes of assessment, and the need for at least some integration of a more practice-based approach, is evidence of more than just inertia.
Assessment is a discourse, a way by which those with authority can specify that these are not only the knowledge domains, but the human characteristics, that are valued by the state and the economy. In this long-standing discourse, ‘vocational’ skills and programmes are defined as ‘lower-class’, and also often feminised. In the 1960s, working class girls and women were encouraged onto secretarial programmes and then into the typing pool. More recent (2012) research in the US demonstrates that this is still the case, showing that lower-income, ethnic minority women were plugged into digital networks, but in an exploitative way – exhibiting ‘digital skills’ but unable to turn them to their own empowerment. It remains to be seen whether the widespread shift to online work patterns that has taken place as a response to COVID-19 will reduce or exacerbate this divide.
Employability tracked through technology
On the other hand, even the more elitist institutions are now obliged to formally measure the employability of their graduates and demonstrate how a university education adds value to the individual. Advances in technology pose a challenge to the view that demonstrated practical ability is regarded as lower status, compared to ‘purer’ intellectual skills. Graduate recruiters now have access to analytic tools that can search the internet for evidence of what a particular candidate is like to work with, through reviewing that person’s online presence. They can look beyond just the list of qualifications, the degree certificate and transcript, and references. If a candidate has identifiable examples of work available online in various media, creative projects such as films, games or a blog, these can be incorporated into a broader assessment of what that person can do and how they fit a job description, not necessarily at the expense of a degree transcript, but certainly supplementing it. And if this work has also been validated by a formal assessment, offered by an accredited educational institution of some kind, that makes it all the more valuable.
Integrating a more practical approach into assessment has been identified as beneficial for two other aspects of education policy. The first is the widening participation agenda. Recognising that there is no reason why a work in digital media should necessarily be less scholarly than an essay, and that it would also be more likely to be seen by others (including potential employers), admits those students for whom ‘writing’ in the traditional sense is difficult, perhaps because of learning difficulties, or simply because their talents lie more in these other realms, to the world of academic discourse.
Upholding the integrity of assessments
Secondly, assessing a student’s practice, their work in context, also counters the increasing use of online essay mills and banks, and the threat these pose to the integrity of assessment across the sector. Mills and banks appeal in a system geared up to assess answers, or words — that is, submitted exam or essay papers. But if assessment is of the student’s practical performance of their knowledge, in a specific context — applying the disciplinary knowledge they have learned to performing a task, making an utterance, interacting with an audience — it is very difficult to acquire such material ‘off the shelf’, or to have someone impersonate the learner by writing a submission for them.
COVID-19 shattered the UK school examination system in 2020, and it seems set to do the same in 2021. Yet the more vocational, coursework-based BTEC assessments are scheduled to happen as normal. Recent research has illustrated how the UK policy on assessment was thrown into a state of disorder by the virus, with at least two ‘windows of opportunity’ for change having already been missed. The January 2021 FE White Paper mentions ‘digital learning’ and ‘digital skills’ only in passing, without an attempt to define the latter.
While I am not arguing against the continued use of exams and essays, education policymakers need to recognise that a practice-based approach to assessment reduces inequality of educational outcomes and enhances employability. The case for incorporating a much higher proportion of alternative assessments methods is clear and if one outcome of the present crisis is a substantial shift to online modes of learning and assessment, practice-based approaches of online assessment are more fit for purpose in the short and longer term.
This article was originally published in On Digital Inequalities, a collection of thought leadership pieces on how to address the inequalities we are seeing in the digital space, published by Policy@Manchester.
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