Are universities overvaluing their students?

Academics nursing their wounds after going through another grueling round of assessment might balk at the idea that this should be a time of joy.

Students may complain about the work they’re supposed to do, but the burden of setting assignments, grading them, and then dealing with an increasing number of calls also strains teachers.

And there’s a feeling across the industry that things only seem to be getting worse as universities faced with questions like how to make graduates more “job ready” often come across the same answer: more devaluation.

Despite all this, Jan McArthur, lecturer in education and social justice at Lancaster University, believes that – if the assessment is done correctly – joy is exactly the emotion academics might be feeling right now.

“What they do is watch that moment of their students’ success. It should be really joyful,” she said.

“Even if their student hasn’t succeeded, there should be joy for a teacher to think, ‘This student hasn’t got it yet, but I can help him.'”

Instead of joy, however, the reviews often evoke feelings of stress, panic, helplessness and exhaustion for everyone involved. “If you talk to an academic during the assessment period, it’s catastrophic and horrible,” Dr McArthur acknowledged.

Part of the problem is the proliferation of assessments seen in recent years. While it is recognized that students do not do well when faced with the prospect of a year-end exam that can make or break their academic career, many universities have moved to a model that involves more assessments with lower stakes, often a mix of projects, exams, essays and presentations. Although many of these are summative assessments, meaning they contribute to grading, there has also been a significant growth in the use of formative assessments, which are used to provide ongoing feedback.

THE campus resource: why you should write reviews to your students before they submit them

A 2018 study by Carmen Tomas, from the University of Nottingham, and Tansey Jessop, now at the University of Bristol, found that students at research-intensive institutions across the UK typically complete 50 assessments summative over the course of their degree, although there was great variation between subjects, with a degree in mathematics involving an astonishing 227.

The latest survey of students’ academic experience in the UK, conducted by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute, found that the volume of summative and formative assignments reached record levels in 2022. Of the 10,142 students in undergraduates who participated in the survey, the average number of summative work assessments per quarter was set at 6.7, compared to 5.0 in 2017; while the number of formative assessments increased from 2.4 to 3.9 over the same period.

Survey feedback indicated that students felt unprepared for the amount of work they would have to do, deadlines were “everywhere” and work-life balance was unhealthy.

Students are now in a situation, Dr McArthur said, where they feel “in a constant state of anxiety” because there always seems to be an assessment to be done.

“It’s more prevalent in some disciplines than others, but it’s becoming more prevalent in all areas. As soon as you receive an evaluation, you move on to the next one. Time for contemplation, for reflection, for rewriting mistakes – all the things we know are essential for good learning – there is no time for them anymore,” she said.

This is a phenomenon experienced by higher education systems around the world. As universities – often constrained by governments – have placed greater emphasis on learning outcomes, assessment has played an increasingly important role, according to Rola Ajjawi, associate professor of educational research at the University. Deakin in Australia.

“What you end up doing is designing your assessment in such a way that you can demonstrate that you have assessed each learning outcome in a unit of study… What is being done I think has led to further over-assessment because that we try to make sure that every learning outcome the learning outcomes are covered,” she said.

For Dr McArthur, the assessment system now used in higher education has been ‘cobbled together’ by the accumulation of ‘incremental’ changes over time and has strayed too far from the fundamental purpose of the exercise .

“I think there are a lot of people trying to do what they’re told is good practice, but because it’s all incremental, it creates something that was not intended at all,” he said. she declared.

“There’s a feeling that, ‘We have to have a presentation because we’re told to assess presentation skills, so we’re going to stick with one of those.’ And they do that and it’s well intentioned, but it’s not consistent.

Mary Richardson, professor of educational evaluation at the UCL Institute of Education, agreed that the willingness of academics to embrace new and different ways of doing things has often added to the workload.

She said new elements have been added to courses alongside, rather than instead of, traditional forms of assessment, which are still often seen as the gold standard by the population as a whole.

“There are many ways to assess students, but our mainstream and societal approach is still very, very conservative and old-fashioned,” Professor Richardson added.

“We’re encouraged to be more diverse and reflective about what we do, but that’s not necessarily reflected in what students or employers want. There’s a constant tension about ‘What kind of grade is this, and does it compare?’ »

Ms Tomas, the author of the 2018 study, argued that the modularization of courses posed challenges for institutions when assessing students.

“We’re trying to promote an understanding of how the build-up of assessments across modules looks and feels to the student,” said Ms. Tomas, until recently Associate Director of Educational Excellence at Nottingham and soon to be Honorary Assistant Professor of Education there.

“We need to take a program-level view and gain a better understanding of what the student is doing throughout their studies. A better balance is needed, but the challenges we encounter are deeply embedded in our systems.

However, most agreed that the way to fix the overgrading issues was not to reintroduce high-stakes final exams, saying continuous testing could work if assignments were better planned and thought out.

For Dr. Ajjawi, assessments should be more sequenced and should feed off each other so that students can use the feedback to better inform their approach to next work.

Introducing a choice element could also be crucial, with students potentially having the option of choosing between several forms of assignments. “Our approach to fairness is that everyone should pass the same exam. But in fact, it doesn’t promote equity because our students have diverse needs, so we don’t design choices or distinctions for individual students in assessments,” Dr Ajjawi said.

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Professor Richardson said she was testing a new technique with undergraduate students known as patchwork assessment. This involves students being given questions at the start of term and getting to work writing them immediately, completing short pieces on which they receive quick feedback from tutors and peers. This ensures that at the end of a 10 week module they have already written half of the assignment.

Dr. McArthur agreed that such a portfolio-based assessment, where students accumulate a body of work over time, could be more flexible and less stressful for participants.

At Nottingham, the idea of ​​involving students more in their own assessment, rather than seeing it as a process imposed on them, is also being tested.

Ms Tomas said the students were trained in self-assessment and peer assessment and given a role in planning, with the aim of helping them gain a better understanding of the standards and performance.

If student stress levels are to improve, better coordination between courses is needed, most academics agreed. Dr. Ajjawi felt that summative assessments should be separated from units of study so that each test, trial or project could draw on multiple units at the same time.

But such bold changes require courage, and hopes that things would be different after the pandemic are fading.

In fact, there is a feeling that to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact and to address concerns about maintaining academic integrity in an online environment, universities have responded to the Covid challenge by introducing more testing .

There’s a lot to be learned from student feedback — like that they appreciate a more relaxed approach to granting extensions — but questions remain about whether an institution is really ready to challenge the status quo.

“The problem with assessment is that it’s so important that people are afraid to change it, other than in ways that reinforce the same old system,” Dr McArthur said.

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