Is university assessment fit for purpose?

University assessment is under the microscope and the sector is working hard to address issues surrounding it. LITE Excellence and Innovation Fellow Samantha Pugh examines what can be learnt from the secondary sector and how it may benefit students and staff in higher education.

Assessment in education serves a number of purposes. It can be used to check on progress, to create a plan for development, to demonstrate competency, or to generate a mark for attainment and grading purposes.

In secondary education, the demarcation between formative and summative assessment is clear; ongoing classwork and homework is used to check on progress and to plan a student’s development – formative.

And the summative assessments, normally associated with exams or coursework elements of an external moderation process, are used to demonstrate competency and generate a mark for attainment purposes.


At university, there is much less of a demarcation.

In reality, most of the assessment tasks are summative in that they are often allocated a percentage mark towards the final module, and therefore degree classification, mark.

This creates a problem in that any feedback provided on the summative assessment is, in essence, too late to be used to create a plan for development.

Such tasks would be much better suited to being formative where they can be used to check progress and create a plan for development, without the fear and pressure of having to get a high score.

Equally, if the score itself doesn’t contribute towards the final grading, then the student is more likely to engage with the feedback rather than just the mark. Students are also denied the opportunity to fail at a task as the stakes are always too high.

Building reward

There is a general feeling among academics that if a piece of work doesn’t have any credit associated with it, then a student won’t complete it.

I believe that this is a situation that is generated by the environment, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the majority of students have just left a school or college where none of their classwork or homework has counted towards their final mark, but in the majority of cases, students complete the work anyway.

Whilst there may be sanctions for not completing work at school, e.g. detentions, a rewards system can also be used to motivate students.

Additionally, students also get feedback in terms of the piece of work, but also on how to improve for future work, building towards the final summative assessment. That is to say, the feedback has value beyond giving the student a mark, so completing the work has wider value to the student.

READ: An outline of Samantha Pugh’s LITE project


Another factor that impacts on completion of coursework is competing demands. If some of the coursework/homework counts towards a mark and some doesn’t then the coursework that has a mark contribution will take priority.

University students have competing demands on their time in terms of juggling up to six different modules at a time, where 10 credit modules exist.

This is as well as engaging with social and societal activities, which they are told from day one are needed to enhance their employability and, in an increasing number of cases, managing the demands of a part-time job.

It is no surprise that a student would prioritise a piece of work that will contribute marks to their final grade.

Lack of real value

Another problem that universities face is a higher than desirable level of dissatisfaction with ‘assessment and feedback.’ Endless efforts to provide more feedback and/or faster feedback have yielded little benefit in terms of increasing levels of satisfaction.

I believe that this is related to the issue of summative assessment.

If a student receives feedback on a piece of work after submission, and after the mark has been assigned, then the feedback will be perceived as being of little future value to the student.

In essence, it has arrived too late in the process.

The modular structure of degree programmes only exacerbates the problem. Whilst the feedback might be considered as valuable for future work, the segmented nature of the programme, with different academic perspectives depending on sub-discipline and module learning outcomes can mean that it is hard for students to derive real value and see the connections between feedback and future work.

Alternative models

Studies in secondary education have shown that it is the quality and not the volume of feedback on student work that really improves learning and attainment, so rather than giving feedback on every piece of submitted work, self and even peer marking can be used as an alternative.

Indeed, this deeper engagement with the marking process can improve learning in itself.

A number of secondary schools are changing their marking and feedback policies in light of these findings, focusing on higher quality, more specific feedback that will aid future learning on selected pieces of work – perhaps on a half-termly basis for each subject.

Looking to the future, therefore, students will not expect feedback on every piece of work that they do. Rewards could be considered for attempting tasks or engagement, rather than achievement.

Some studies have shown that rewarding effort rather than achievement can actually lead to better attainment.


So what does this mean for higher education?

I believe that a different approach to assessment is needed, to improve both learning and satisfaction.

Firstly, feedback should be given on formative tasks, so that a student has chance to learn from the feedback to improve their work, before it counts towards their marks.

This changed focus should see students using the opportunity for formative feedback to improve their marks. This will only work if there are no summative assessments due at the same time that are competing for the students’ time.

Programme level

Secondly, we should consider whether every assessment in every module should count towards classification. The degree learning outcomes refer to students being able to ‘demonstrate’ competency in a range of areas.

A programme level view of assessment, therefore, is required.

The modularisation of degree programmes around 20 years ago in the UK led to degree programmes being created by collating a set of building blocks in each level, whose individual scores generated the degree classification.

An unfortunate consequence was that in a number of cases, the sense of a ‘whole programme qualification’ was lost, and the focus on outcomes was at a module level.

So a way forward could be for year level, or programme level assessments.

This has been achieved in some institutions but can only be achieved through a holistic approach and a clear sense of what the learning outcomes for a given programme are.

With this clear vision, which would also need to speak to QAA benchmark statements, and any relevant professional bodies, an assessment strategy for assessing the demonstration of the learning outcomes, and therefore the students’ achievement of the degree qualification would be possible.

This series of well-designed assessments would be used to generate the marks for degree classification, and then a range of other formative assessment tasks would be designed to build towards the summative assessment throughout the programme.


I believe that by making formative assessment and feedback more meaningful, students would be more satisfied with the feedback that they receive.

Students would also benefit from a lower stress load throughout the course, as they would have the opportunities to fail and improve throughout. This has been proven important to increasing a person’s resilience.

There would also be a potential decrease in the marking workload for staff because if the formative assessments aren’t used to calculate classification, then there could be more use of self and peer assessment, which in itself, aids learning.