Jisc’s new principles of good assessment and feedback

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In case you missed it, Jisc has recently published an excellent resource on the principles of good assessment and feedback. A UK not-for-profit organisation, Jisc provides digital resources and services in support of higher education institutions and research. They produce a wealth of resources and support for the evidence-based use of technology in higher education.

Their new guide comprises 7 principles of good assessment and feedback, and each principle includes a short case of how it is implemented with practical suggestions. Each principle is listed below with some hints. They align extremely well with Nicol’s first year assessment principles as well as our own principles guiding education at Sydney.

It’s important to note that the guide is very much focused on assessment as learning and assessment for learning rather than just assessment of learning.

  • Assessment of learning usually refers to the summative processes that an intitution goes through to certify students: the award or certification that they are given. Exams are a classic example of assessment of learning.
  • Assessment for learning usually means that the assessment is formative and the design of the activity enables students to recieve feedback that they can act upon. An assessment that includes a draft with feedback would be classed as assessment for learning
  • Assessment as learning occurs when students move towards being able to assess themselves. There are elements of both formative and summative assessment and the task(s) empower students to become more confident in judging their own work and that of their peers. Peer review, peer assessment and reflection all assist with this.

What are Jisc’s 7 Principles?

Parts of this article have been adapted, with permission, from Jisc’s guide.

1. Help learners understand what ‘good’ looks like

Engaging learners with the requirements and performance criteria for each task is key. Students need to know what the requirements of an assessment are and how they will be judged. This may sound obvious, but sometimes it’s hard for students to find information, and instructions may use very dense academic language which is difficult to decipher. Communicating expectations clearly is one of Sydney’s core pedagogical principles. It is important for all year groups but is vital for new students as they acclimatise to the requirements of higher education. This aligns directly with the first of Nicol’s first-year assessment principles.

Top tips and examples:

  1. Consider using a common design and structure for assignment briefs, so that the essential information is presented, in plain English, in a consistent way for each assignment.
  2. Consider using feed-forward so students understand what they need to focus on in order to improve.
  3. Sheffield Hallam University makes all of its guidance and templates available via its assessment essentials website.
  4. Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) has developed guidance on assessment grading, criteria and marking (pdf). This helps ensure consistency across the organisation. MMU uses an app to make this information available to students via any mobile device.
  5. The University of Reading’s A-Z of assessment methods (pdf) can help you choose an appropriate type of assessment
  6. Consider using Adaptive Comparative Judgement tools – this technique is explained in this presentation and session recording

2. Support the personalised needs of learners – be accessible, inclusive and compassionate

There is no such thing as a standard student. Disability, neurodiversity, cultural and religious background, work and family commitments and personal preference all play a part in shaping our experience of learning. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been growing calls for us to develop a more ‘compassionate pedagogy’. As online classes have taken us into each other’s homes, teachers have gained a different kind of understanding of the conditions under which students study and the competing demands of work and family they have to juggle. In now building approaches using a seamless mix of online and face-to-face approaches, it is important not to forget these lessons.

Top tips:

  1. Using digital tools makes it easier to implement universal design for learning (UDL) guidelines by providing multiple channels and options for engagement with learning and assessment activities.
  2. Book a UDL consult with an expert to help develop this principle in your own context.
  3. Consider using the Student Relationship Engagement System SRES to make your large classes seem smaller. It can also be used to personalise feedback, track student engagement and follow up with students who are not engaging.

3. Foster active learning

Active learning has been a key tenet of curriculum design and learning space design for several years, and is one of the University of Sydney’s core pedagogical principles. Approaches to teaching have evolved in response to evidence that techniques such as purely didactic lecturing, where students are passive recipients of information, are highly ineffective. Such approaches foster a sense of belonging and connectedness.

Top tips:

  1. Use quizzes or polls during lectures to introduce some interactivity and allow you to assess (and give informal feedback to) student progress.
  2. Consider using questions to aid students’ learning – research from Carnegie Mellon University suggests a causal relationship between students doing practice questions while reading and enhanced learning outcomes. This phenomenon, known as the ‘doer effect’ has been replicated in very large-scale studies in other US universities.
  3. In line with the 2nd and 11th of Nicol’s assessment principles, use low-stakes formative assessments to ensure students are engaged in their studies and to help them gain confidence.

4. Develop autonomous learners

Developing students’ ability to self-regulate and manage their own learning is a key goal of effective learning and assessment design. One powerful way of promoting autonomy is by the use of peer review. Many studies have observed that students appear to learn more from generating feedback for their peers than they do from engaging with peer feedback comments provided for them. This aligns strongly with Nicol’s 7th assessment principle of the importance of self-assessment and reflection.

Research suggests this is because when students review their peers’ work, after producing their own, they make comparisons of the peer’s work with their own and this activates powerful internal feedback. Such comparisons can generate valuable learning whether the work of the peer is stronger or weaker than the reviewer’s own. (Nicol & McCallum, 2021)

5. Manage staff and learner workload effectively

Common problems to avoid are over-assessment and ‘assessment bunching’. Students are not able to produce their best work if they have multiple assignments to complete within a short timeframe, and this also puts stress on staff marking and grading the assignments. As well as supporting the personalised needs of the learners, thinking about assessment volume and time can also help reduce staff workloads through fewer special consideration applications and replacement assessments.

We recommend checking out this resource which covers ideas on assessment patterns that work.

In highly structured courses where students have fewer unit choices, it may be possible to work with colleagues using the assessment information in published unit outlines to reduce clashes of deadlines and over assessment. In other courses, it may be still be possible to do this by using the Knowing Your Students reports to understand the other units of study taken by your students.

6. Foster a motivated learning community

Universities often focus on developing students’ study skills, graduate attributes and digital literacies rather than understanding assessment and developing their assessment literacy. Much emphasis is put on students developing their assessment ‘technique’ through essay writing, presentation and preparing for exams rather than understanding the nature and purpose of assessment and feedback practice. This aligns directly with the 9th and 10th of Nicol’s assessment principles as well as our own pedagogical principle of fostering belonging and community.

Top tips:

  1. Consider engaging students as active participants in making academic judgements to develop their assessment literacy and give assessment a sense of purpose. For example, ask students to self-rate their performance on a rubric before submitting an assignment, or run peer review sessions.
  2. Encourage participation in discussions about assessment approaches, criteria and standards. This can help to develop students’ academic judgement as well as developing skills important for employability. This could look like facilitating a class discussion around some exemplar assessments.
  3. Self and peer review activities are the most active way of allowing students to practice making evaluative judgements.

7. Promote learner employability

If the only worth of doing an assessment is to get the marks, you need to rethink it. Plausibility is important.

Kay Sambell, University of Cumbria

If higher education is to remain relevant in a changing world, it needs to demonstrate that our learning and assessment practices prepare people for the world of work and participation in a democratic society.

Top tip: Use authentic assessment

There are frequent calls for assessment to become more ‘authentic’. This means that the tasks which are assessed should reflect things the learner may have to do in real life. Traditional assessment formats, such as essays or exams, don’t really mirror any other real-world situations.

The skills we can test using formats such as closed book exams, which rely heavily on recall, are an equally poor fit with the working practices of academics or researchers of the future.

Authentic tasks are more likely to focus on deeper learning and the student’s ability to apply their knowledge and skills. Give students some agency in deciding the topic and medium to be assessed, and you are moving towards the ideal of creating value from individual uniqueness. This may also help to mitigate academic misconduct and dishonesty.

  1. Consider adapting your assessments to be more ‘authentic‘ and/or multimodal.
  2. Book an assessment consultation with an expert to discuss using these approaches in your own context.

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