This week Sarah King reviews a recent, HEA-commissioned literature review on assessment and feedback in higher education published in April 2017.

The literature review was commissioned by the HEA and builds on the HEA’s work, most notably in relation to its Transforming Assessment Framework (2016). It is a detailed and comprehensive piece of work and what follows is a selected summary of some of the key themes.

Two key questions are explored:

  1. What key elements are highlighted in the literature as fundamental to the development of assessment in higher education that is high quality and improves student learning?
  2. How are the fundamentals of assessment manifested in recent literature on assessment in higher education?

In relation to the first question the principles that are explored through the literature are:

  • Assessment for learning

The idea that “assessment is an activity that should be used to inform and improve student learning”. This is most obvious in relation to formative assessment and has strong links to effective use of feedback. Assessment for learning requires us to integrate assessment into broader curriculum design. Later in the literature review the authors question whether a focus on assessment for learning and, by association, formative assessment has left summative assessment as an under-researched area.

  • Aligned and fit-for-purpose assessment

This links to the principles of “constructive alignment” and assessment as part of the wider curriculum. “Fit-for-purpose” links to the notion of validity of assessment and is closely aligned to learning outcomes – ie does the assessment assess what we want / need it to?

  • Collaborative construction of standards

This fundamental argues that “determining a performance standard or an achievement scale for an assessment or a single piece of assessment should be a constructive and collaborative process”. This does not necessarily (but could) involve students as co-creators but does require a dialogue between staff and students and a shared understanding of standards and quality.

  • Integrating assessment literacy with learning

This builds on the idea of dialogue. By embedding assessment into curriculum design we engage students in a continual learning process that develops their ability to self-assess.

  • Defensibility of professional judgments

This is not only related to the mechanics of marking and marking criteria, but links to an iterative process in which we, as academics, reflect on, refine, and revise our practice in relation to assessment.

  • The limits of assessment

An acceptance that “learning is a complex and non-linear process” and that, therefore, assessment is not a precise science.

In relation to the second question the two issues that dominated the literature were feedback and feedforward, and peer and self-assessment.

The review notes that “in general the field demonstrates a shift away from feedback as justification or explanation of a mark to feedback being primarily about its ability to feed forward into future learning”. Interestingly, the review found that, despite there being strong theoretical arguments for the benefits of feedback and feedforward, there is currently little empirical evidence on the impact and effectiveness of these approaches and the authors suggests that “future research should begin to focus on valid and reliable measurements of the impact of feedback”.

In relation to peer assessment there has been a good deal of research that compares the marks assigned by students with those assigned by tutors but the authors question whether this research gets to the heart of the question of whether peer assessment actually improves student learning. The review notes that many papers “detail formidable problems with the summative use of peer assessment” particularly when used summatively. More positive is the use of peer assessment as a formative tool – particularly when it is used to develop in students the ability to self-assess their own work. The paper states that “the consensus opinion on the formative value of peer assessment is compelling and coherent, as is the emerging conviction that it is the provision more than the receipt of feedback that has the most potential”.

Technology features in a number of articles but the authors accept that a summary is difficult, in part because technology is evolving so quickly. One general observation is that “the general level of enthusiasm within the literature can lead to a situation where the tail begins to wag the dog” and this highlights the need to find a balance between technology and pedagogy.

The last section of the literature review looks at emerging ideas and includes programmatic assessment that takes place progressively.

Further Reading

The link to the resource is: