Flexibility in assessment – should students choose? (2014)

Ciara O’Hagan, Molly Hashmi-Greenwood, Jo Long & Michelle Newberry

Assessment for and of learning is an integral part of higher education; appropriate assessment practices contribute to learning as well as measuring achievement (Boud, 2000). In many cases, the assessment diet of a taught course now includes assessment through a range of different methods, designed to promote development of different skills, match subject-specific requirements, and address the need for inclusivity in education.

It has been suggested that universities should develop a ‘flexible’ approach, whereby students have some choice in the method, format, or timing of their assessments. This may promote engagement by a) giving learners an element of control over their learning experience (Irwin and Hepplestone, 2012), b) contribute to developing autonomous, self-directed learners (Tusting and Barton, 2003), and c) address the need for inclusivity in line with the agenda for widening participation in higher education (Craddock and Mathias, 2009). However, it has been suggested that it may be difficult to ensure parity in setting and marking different assessment tasks (Knight, 2002). There are also issues with potentially allowing students to focus only on their strengths, and avoid developing their weaknesses (Hall, 1982). Also, offering choice may actually create anxiety for some students (O’Neill, 2012).

In this pilot study, we explore the experiences of undergraduate students enrolled in three modules in which there is some choice in the method of assessment of their learning. We consider the students’ reasons for choosing particular methods, their feelings about being given choice, and how/if these factors relate to levels of achievement in the assessment task.