Holding assessment up to the light

One of the areas which students often discuss is ‘assessment load’ (and, to be fair, staff often share the same perspective).

Tomas and Jessop (2019) suggest four principle areas which constitute assessment load: the volume of summative assessment; the volume of formative assessment; proportion of examinations to coursework; number of different varieties of assessment. Laced through this are other crucial considerations, such as cognitive load (which my colleague Spencer Frost has written about here), as well as levels of engagement, sense of belonging and academic support.

At the start of the academic year, it might seem a bit strange to focus on assessment load, but there seems to be a clear consensus that a high assessment load (and indeed perceptions of this) is detrimental to deep, rich learning. I always feel at the start of the year that excitement to cherish new perspectives on knowledge and new possibilities around learning. So how can those feelings be sustained for as long as possible? How can we avoid it dissipating in the face of high assessment loads?

I’ve had Billy Collins’ poem tacked up on a window in my English classroom for a few years now, and it’s a wonderful evocation of the tensions which exist in formal learning settings.

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

There are some enchanting metaphors in here. Some have found the poem pessimistic, particularly the final two stanzas and have seen it as positioning students and teachers as having different priorities. To me however, it invokes one of the great joys and challenges of teaching, which is to cultivate that passion and curiosity in the face of surface approaches to learning.

It is far easier said than done, but when thinking about assessment load, seeing assessment as an opportunity to revel in learning is a touchstone. In the longer term, it might involve thinking about the format and frequency of assessments at a programme level; the role and value of formative assessments in programme design; or the extent to which assessments discern what students have learned, in contrast to assessing what they haven’t learned. Working with the Curriculum Enhancement Project, the TESTA team can help with these reflections.

But, in the shorter term, at this time of year, it might mean thinking about how we can imbue and sustain those feelings of learning as illuminative and kaleidoscopic, because that will help students feel like they can ‘waterski’ rather than sink under assessment loads.


Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry” from The Apple that Astonished Paris. Copyright 1988, 1996 by Billy Collins. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press.

Source: The Apple that Astonished Paris (University of Arkansas Press, 1996)

Carmen Tomas & Tansy Jessop (2019). Struggling and juggling: a comparison of student assessment loads across research and teaching-intensive universities, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:1, 1-10, DOI:

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