University assessment – a student’s perspective

THE effectiveness of assessment across higher education and the sector as a whole is at the centre of much debate. University of Leeds second year Chemistry undergraduate, Olivia Seago, was part of a student-led team who carried out a snapshot review of assessment across UK and international higher education.

She writes here about her findings.

I was excited to be given the opportunity to work as a student intern on the LITE Rethinking University Assessment by Learning from Secondary Education project.

Before starting university, I expected the methods of teaching and assessment to be very different to those I had experienced at school.

Whilst assessment of practical laboratory work was a completely new experience, the majority of the first year of my Chemistry degree at the University of Leeds was assessed using the familiar methods of written examinations and coursework.

I experienced more variety in my second year, through the introduction of essays, seminars and online tests, which I feel improved my learning experience.

I was eager to explore how these and other methods of assessment are being used at other institutions, and how these are used to assess a variety of important graduate attributes.

STUDENT-Led: Second year undergraduate Olivia Seago (second to the right) with fellow student reviewers Joe Kent-Waters (first left), Lydia Smith (second left) and LITE’s Dr Samantha Pugh.

Surprise

Upon starting the internship, our first priority was to list all the assessment methods we had encountered whilst at university.

As a group, we found we had experienced quite a variety of different assessment methods. Considering my course is heavily exam-based, this came as a surprise.

I was particularly shocked to learn that the Theatre and Performance course here at Leeds does not feature a single written exam; I did not expect such a stark contrast in assessment methods at the same university.

We used our own experiences and further research to review each of these assessment methods, focusing on skills assessed and advantages and disadvantages from teaching and student perspectives, as well as providing opinions from our experiences as students.

READ:Student-led compendium of assessment launched by LITE

Audit

Our next step was to research the methods of assessment being used for the five subjects at other universities which included Biology, Chemical Engineering, Chemistry, Education, and Theatre and Performance

We decided to look first at other universities in the UK, focussing on the Russell Group so the methods found could be comparable to those at Leeds in terms of teaching and learning experience.

To do this, we read through the assessment description of every module offered across the five subjects at these universities, noting any new discoveries to research and review later.

After this we extended our view to the top 50 QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017, then searched for new, innovative assessment methods in these subjects at institutions not yet researched.

Balance

My role was to research assessment methods in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering.

I discovered a few alternative methods of assessment in use at other Russell Group universities, including oral exams, debates and take-home tests, but found the majority of modules to be assessed by a combination of written exam and coursework.

Whilst almost all examined modules at Leeds have a small percentage contribution from coursework, this varied between universities: some modules were assessed entirely by one or more written exams, and others giving equal or more weighting to the coursework component.

I think the approach at Leeds finds a good balance; it is reassuring for students that their grade is not entirely dependent on the result of one examination, but completing large amounts of coursework as well as studying for an exam would be very time consuming.

All Chemistry degree courses had some element of practical laboratory assessment, most commonly through written laboratory reports and results of experiments performed.

‘Real-World’

It was interesting to discover that some universities assessed performance separately to the laboratory report, and that some had the practical components integrated into taught modules rather than a single laboratory module.

Chemical Engineering degrees are even more vocational than Chemistry degrees, so, aside from exams and coursework, their assessment methods often mimicked real-world duties of an engineer.

These were generally consistent across the Russell Group universities, with design projects and reports introduced in many second year modules and often forming a significant part of the final year assessment.

The University of Manchester was the only institution to list a HAZOP, a type of risk assessment study commonly used in the engineering industry, as a method of assessment.

I think this would be a particularly effective method of assessment, as students can put core skills such as working in a group and critical thinking into practice, whilst becoming familiar with a procedure they will likely use in their future careers.

Key skills

An interesting approach to developing key skills was found in the Department of Chemistry at the University of York, in which teaching continues after the summer examination period.

In the first year the additional two weeks are spent working on an integrated laboratory project, and in the second students perform group exercises and participate in careers workshops.

These sessions are assessed by lab performance and group presentations.

I feel students would benefit from this time set aside to develop key skills, however, they may be reluctant to work after their summer examinations, especially if their peers at other universities are not doing the same.

After researching Russell Group universities, we expanded our search to the top 50 world universities for each subject, according to QS World University Rankings 2017.

Disappointingly, this did not yield any alternative assessment methods in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering; as in the UK, these modules were most commonly assessed by examinations and coursework.

Alternative

The next step was to try to find any innovative assessment methods in use at other universities.

One method found was Structured Chemical Examinations (SChemEs) at the University of Hertfordshire.

This is an alternative to continuous laboratory assessment, in which students are assessed on their performance at 5 stations, each designed to assess a particular skill, in their final lab session of the semester.

I was particularly interested to learn about this approach as I find continuous practical assessment to be very stressful.

This method could enable students to focus on developing their skills throughout the semester, rather than worrying about getting the highest mark every time.

Problem solving

Another interesting approach to assessment was the use of Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in the Department of Chemistry at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.

Students work in groups under the supervision of an academic facilitator, performing individual research on a topic which they present to their peers and evaluate their performance to solve a particular problem.

If students work fairly within their group, this could be an interesting method of assessing key skills whilst putting subject knowledge into practice.

Change needed

During my time working as an intern on this project, I have learnt the importance of variation in assessment at university.

Written examinations, which dominate the subjects of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, are still important methods of assessment: they are familiar to students from secondary education, easing the transition into university; they are suitable for large classes, and assess the important graduate attributes of subject knowledge and problem solving.

I feel, however, the emphasis placed on written exams should be changed.

They are unable to assess other important graduate attributes such as research skills and oral communication skills, and students are expected to perform under conditions they are unlikely to experience in the working world.

In Chemistry, practical ability is equally as important as subject knowledge: whilst continuous assessment is currently the preferred method, I believe there is room for improvement to give students the opportunity to develop their skills without their grades being affected.

The results of our research will hopefully help teachers to select the most effective methods of assessment for their courses, to provide an enjoyable university experience for students whilst equipping them with the skills required to succeed after graduation.