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Reimagining university assessment


Reimagining university assessment by learning from secondary education

Samantha Pugh - School of Physics and Astronomy

Project Overview

This project has worked with five academic schools, each in a different faculty, at the University of Leeds, and with three secondary schools in the Yorkshire and Humber region. One issue that is often highlighted by academics is a modular approach to learning. Students can become concerned with passing each module without maintaining a holistic view, perhaps because they never need to in order to be successful on the programme. In this respect, the connection between the assessments and the programme-level learning outcomes are not explicit.

For the last 20 years or so, Key Stage 5 (A-levels) has been taught and assessed in a modular fashion, leading academics to believe that students are used to modular learning and assessment, which is then reinforced in Higher Education (HE). A shift to synoptic assessment could be regarded as an alien concept and therefore high risk. However, A-level reforms mean that from 2018 entry, students have experienced synoptic, final examinations at A-level. This presents a golden opportunity for universities to rethink their programme structure and assessment strategies.

This project has taken a qualitative approach to understanding educators’ experiences of assessment and establishing the scope for change with respect to programme design and assessment practices. The hypothesis was that taking more of a programme level view could lead to better assessment design and also enable better use of formative assessment for learning.

Key Findings

Findings from the participating Schools at the University of Leeds:

  • It shouldn’t be necessary to assess every module that is taught. The learning outcomes for the programme and, in turn, the modules need to be assessed, but this could be done, from a quality assurance perspective, in a more synoptic way.
  • There was a strong sense that moving to a more synoptic view of assessment would help to make programmes more coherent, and therefore a better learning experience. However it was also noted that there are structural and cultural challenges to making such a move.
  • There was also a sense that we are over-reliant on 3-hour unseen written examinations, which could be considered as a poor assessment methodology. Academics regularly cited examinations as ‘efficient’. However, staff in the Student Education Service held a different view. There is a lot of cost associated with running exams, which is borne by the centre, and may be why Schools regard them as efficient.
  • There was general support for the use of ‘open book’ style examinations, as they more closely represent working practices in the 21st century.
  • A programme-based approach to assessment could also provide more opportunities for students to work collaboratively and in teams. This represents a truer representation of the working world, but is currently in tension with the need to generate a fair and transparent individual mark for students.
  • Whilst accreditation, particularly in some areas, is very strict, it was not considered an issue in terms of introducing synoptic assessment.

Findings from the participating secondary schools:

  • The most significant change to A-levels is that students now have much more time to get to grips with a topic before they are formally assessed, and they will revisit the topic several times between first introduction and final assessment. This could have significant implications for single semester modules where there isn’t time to revisit topics several times. The introduction of spaced repetition of learning could be beneficial.
  • A positive impact of synoptic assessment could be that students may be used to linking different areas of the curriculum to solve problems. This may help to address issues that are currently experienced in HE in terms of ‘pocketed learning.’
  • For practical subjects, a lot can be learned by the competency-based approach being taken at A-level. Rather than students being assessed on every aspect of every practical activity, they could be expected to demonstrate competency in a range of appropriate skills throughout the year.


The following institutional recommendations were proposed:

  • System developments to allow decoupling of teaching from assessment within programme structures
  • Proposal for a Year 0 tutor/pre-University tutor for each School in the first instance
  • Review of current Programme Learning Outcomes as there may be a mismatch between what is documented, what individuals reported through interviews and what is assessed to demonstrate learning outcomes.
  • Assessment Mapping
  • Learning from Secondary Education and the introduction of spaced repetition in modules.

If you want to find out more details about this fellowship please read the full snapshot (PDF) or contact Samantha (