How to Achieve High-quality Assessments?

As lecturer, when assessing, you may initially think of ways to determine how well students master the learning material and pre-determined competencies. But assessing involves more than that. This education tip explains the difference between assessment of learning and assessment for learning and how to use both approaches to carry out high-quality assessments. 

What are the two forms of assessment? 

Assessment is not only the final component of a learning process to determine grades, but is also an engine for learning: 

  • Through exams, papers or other forms of assessments, you as lecturer can check to what extent your students master the learning material and competencies. These assessments are a culmination of a learning process, lead to a grade for the students and determine whether or not students pass your course unit. This form of assessment is the so-called assessment of learning
  • However, assessments can also be used as an engine for learning. Students get a view of where they are at in their learning process and can teach them to make adjustment. That is called assessment for learning.   

Therefore, qualitative assessment refers to a decision about grades and a pass or fail of the students on the one hand, and the promotion of the students’ learning on the other. Ghent University's Assessment Policy highlights both functions of assessing. 

Assessment of learning: assessing to make a judgment and assign marks 

In order to judge whether or not students pass, your assessments need to be valid, reliable and transparent. These are the three basic quality characteristics put forward by Ghent University's Assessment Policy:   

Validity 

What is validity?

Assessments are valid if they assess exactly those competencies you intended to achieve in your course unit. In that regard, the format and content of your assessments are well-tailored to the course competencies of your course unit. The sound alignment between course competencies, assessments and teaching activities is also called constructive alignment.   

How to ensure a valid assessment?

  • Start from your course unit's course competencies
    Not only consider the learning material to prepare the questions or assignments for assessment,  but also the course competencies to determine which questions to ask in the exam or which assignments you give in assessments. 
  • Choose an appropriate form of assessment
    A multiple-choice exam to assess whether students are able to swim a distance within a certain period of time is obviously not a valid assessment method. This requires a practical test in which students can demonstrate their skill. So, choose an assessment form that actually assesses the competencies you aim to achieve.  
  • Ensure a representative reflection of the learning material and competencies.
    Make sure that the learning material and competencies you assess are distributed evenly over different assessments and over the questions or assignments within those assessments. Especially assess essential learning material. Avoid trick questions or questions and assignments about irrelevant details. If a particular competency is essential in your course unit, it must occur adequately and carry enough weight in the whole of your assessments, exam questions or assignments. 
  • Start from the course competencies to formulate exam questions or assignments. 
    If you want to assess whether students can apply certain concepts to a case study, do not ask mere reproduction questions where students have to recite definitions of those concepts. In a valid assessment, you formulate the questions or assignments in such a way that students  have to demonstrate their understanding at the appropriate level (i.e., in terms of knowledge, understanding and application). 
  • Design an assessment matrix. 
    An assessment matrix is a useful tool to ensure that an exam or a series of assessments is valid and therefore representative of a course unit's course competencies. 

Reliability 

What is reliability?

Like academic research, the 'research' into the student's skills must be reliable. This means that the results of the assessments must be accurate, objective and free from measurement errors and coincidences. In other words, the marks are an accurate reflection of a student's actual proficiency level.  Therefore, assessments yield the same marks over and over again, even if a different form of assessment had been chosen, another assessor had done the marking or the assessment had been conducted at a different time. 

How to increase the reliability of an assessment?

  • formulate the questions and assignments clearly and unambiguously. Ask colleagues to check your questions (cf. four-eyes principle). 
  • tailor the difficulty of the assessment to the students the assessment is intended to test. 
  • design many questions and tasks in order to cover a large part of the content or competencies to be assessed. This leads to a reliable judgment that is not based on luck with regards to the questions or assignments. 
  • provide enough time for the assessment, unless time pressure is a specific factor in the assessment. 
  • provide a quiet, serene environment: not too hot, not too noisy and cheat-free.  
  • give clear instructions to students, such as: what is the form of assessment, what are the rules for marking and what are the objectives? 
  • aim for accuracy and objectivity in the assessment by using an answer key, clear assessment criteria or rubrics.  This ensures that every answer or performance is judged in the same way. 
  • mark without looking at the student's name. Mark per question and not per exam paper and change the order of the exam papers to avoid bias in your judgment based on the quality of previous exam papers of answers.  
  • if you work with more assessors, establish clear agreements on assessment criteria, answer keys and rules for marking to achieve the greatest possible degree of unambiguity in the assessments. 

Transparency 

What is transparency? 

Transparency about the format, the moment, the rules and substantive expectations of assessments is very important within the test practice at the UGent. Prior to an assessment, students have the  right to receive all information about the assessment that will allow them to demonstrate their competencies optimally. Because the UGent values this transparency, it has included some minimum requirements in the Education and Examination Code

  • offer questions and exercises during the lectures that reflect the specific exam requirements. 
  • in the course sheet, include information on the assessment periods, forms of assessment, how marks are calculated in multiple assessments and the special conditions to pass. 
  • communicate extensively in the lectures and/or via Ufora on all modalities of the exam. 

How to increase the transparency of an assessment?

  • Use examples to specify the level you expect in the exam. 
    By indicating the level of exam questions, you show the students what level you expect from them at the end of the course unit. As a result, they will study with more focus and pursue that level. This increases the likelihood that they will have reached the desired level by the time of the exam. 
  • Communicate about the type of questions. 
    Each exam format requires a specific preparation. After all, each exam format tests specific skills. Therefore, communicate to the students what the exam will look like and what kind of questions you will ask so that they can prepare properly. 
  • Clarify the substantive expectations of assessments in the educational activities.
    Students need to get a formal and substantive overview of the exam expectations. That means that you don't just communicate about the exam, but you also have to tailor your teaching method to what you want to achieve. In this way, the students experience the level you aim to achieve. 

Assessment for learning: Assessing as an Engine for Learning 

What is assessment for learning? 

  • assessment for learning is a concept that has been prevalent since the 1980s and stresses that assessments must not be used solely to determine what students have learnt but also to support their learning. 
  • watch the video clip below featuring prof. dr. Tammy Schellens of the Department of Education on "What is assessment for learning? Why is it so important in higher education?" 

Log in with your GhentUni account on MS Stream to watch the clip.

How to use assessment for learning? 

  • there are two types of assessments: with marks (summative) and without marks (formative). Both are instructive because students receive feedback on where they are at in their learning process. This can be reinforced by linking rich feedback to these assessments so that students can adjust their learning;
  • ideally, assessments do not occur at the end of a learning process (such as at the end of a term), but mid-term and preferably at several moments in times and integrated throughout the learning process. Mid-term assessments provide particularly powerful learning opportunities; 
  • assessments do not only have to take place for lecturers; students can also play a certain role in them. For example, forms of peer assessment or self-assessment in which students judge each other or themselves respectively are particularly instructive and very appropriate methods where assessment is used as a means of learning;  
  • watch the video clip below featuring prof. dr. Tammy Schellens of the Department of Education about "How can lecturers implement this? Is it compatible with awarding marks?" 

Log in with your GhentUni account on MS Stream to watch the clip.

Where to find an inspiring, practical example of assessment for learning? 

Watch the video clip below featuring prof. dr. Tammy Schellens of the Department of Education in which she outlines how she works with her students. In the example, students think about the assessment criteria and create rubrics to apply in peer assessment. Students use voting systems and these rubrics to assess and give feedback to each other. 

Log in with your GhentUni account on MS Stream to watch the clip.

In addition to high-quality assessments within the course units, it is, of course, important to look at assessments programme-wide and to align them accordingly. If you want to know more about high-quality assessments within a programme, click here

Want to Know More? 

  • consult the information booklet on Evalueren (in Dutch)   
  • read the source on which this Education Tip is based: 
    • SCOULLER, K. (1998). The Influence of Assessment Method on Students' Learning Approaches: Multiple Choice Question Examination versus Assignment Essay. Higher Education, 35, 453-472. 

Last modified June 29, 2022, 2:28 p.m.