Universities must reform how they evaluate students so that assessment is integral to learning

Nicolas Labrosse says we must change how universities evaluate physics students

A different approach Students tend to dislike high-stakes end-of-course assessments. (Courtesy: iStock/Chris Ryan)

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruption to higher education. Its impact has also raised important questions about university education, including how we should best assess students in university physics departments. The current “gold standard” of student assessment is written examinations under controlled conditions that are often held at the end of the course. By being invigilated and time-limited, such exams are fair, guarantee academic integrity and support the development of independent thinking. They are also good at judging how well students can carry out certain derivations or apply their knowledge.

44% of students felt they have no regular indicators of how well they are performing

In many cases, the pandemic led to invigilated tests being replaced by remote examinations. This usually involved students working at home – downloading the question paper, taking a picture of their answers with their mobile phone camera and then uploading it onto a university server within a certain time. However, students were doing the exams under very variable conditions: some had full access to a quiet study area while others may have had unreliable Internet, been distracted by their surroundings or had to carry out caring duties. Some students may also have been working together in the same room or discussing questions on a messaging app, all of which raised significant concerns about academic integrity.

While some physics departments may look at the problems of remote exams and just want to return to how things were before, the pandemic has also shone a light on the over reliance of high-stakes end-of-course assessments, which few students liked in the first place. In 2020, for example, Pearson and Wonkhe – a higher-education policy forum – carried out a survey that revealed that 44% of students felt they have no regular indicators of how well they are performing. The findings suggested that there is too much emphasis on using exams as an assessment of learning. The bottom line is that such exams may be handy for universities wanting to calculate degree results but are less useful in supporting students’ learning.

We must consider what assessment is for: is it to assess what students have learned, or as a tool for learning itself?

According to a study commissioned by Advance HE and the Higher Education Policy Institute, the average number of assignments for students at UK universities per term increased from 5.0 in 2017 to 6.7 in 2022. So is the rise harming rather than helping students’ learning? Or were we perhaps under-assessing our students a decade ago? The fact that we do not know highlights why we need to re-examine how and why we assess students, and to take an evidence-based approach to how we redesign assessments. Most importantly we must consider what assessment is for: is it to assess what students have learned, or as a tool for learning itself? The right number of assignments, and when they occur in a degree programme, will result naturally from a careful design of assessment as part of learning.

The way forward

Exams will need to remain in place in some way. But there are several alternative approaches that were in use before the pandemic that are now being adopted more frequently, meaning that we do not have to come up with entirely new solutions. Examples include requesting that students add detailed explanations to accompany their workings. We could also make greater use of open-ended questions, which make it harder for students to cheat as they must demonstrate their knowledge and understanding in their own words.

Feedback opportunities would enhance students’ learning to help them develop as life-long, self-regulated learners

Better still would be to introduce more varied assessments throughout a degree programme – such as semester-long open problems or perhaps video presentations. They would give students multiple opportunities to show their achievements rather than purely relying on final exams. Physics departments could then develop assessment as part of the learning process itself rather than it simply being a way of judging what has been learned during a course. Assessment would also be more meaningful, while feedback opportunities would enhance students’ learning to help them develop as life-long, self-regulated learners.

It is an exciting time for university departments that want to transform student assessment so that it becomes a vital part of the learning process. Academic staff should work with students to review existing practice so that they together create more diverse and inclusive assessments throughout degree programmes. I hope that by working with other university services, and even with employers, we can make assessment more enjoyable for all, and that this will lead to better outcomes that prepare students for their personal and professional lives.

None of this will be easy. And things are made more difficult due to the abysmal lack of funding to support discipline-based education research in the UK even though lots of students are ready and waiting to try new things out. Changes to why and how physics students are assessed at university must come from the ground up. Students and educators must work as partners to find a solution and remain responsible for the direction they want to take.

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