Teaching Stories

The Primary Experience: What Can We Learn about Cross-Institutional Changes?

The following post was written by Dr. Isabel Hopwood-Stephens, a TESTA Researcher.

As one of the TESTA researchers attached to BILT, I’m going to be involved in collecting and analysing data about Bristol undergraduates’ experience of assessment. The aim of TESTA is to provide an evidence-based starting point for discussions among Programme Teams about how students’ experience of assessment might be improved, thereby increasing their engagement with their study and satisfaction with the course.

This is done by sharing any issues identified in the analysis and providing ideas which are likely to involve teaching staff making changes to aspects of the assessment experience; for example, offering detailed verbal feedback on a draft of an essay, which the student can use to improve it, before the essay is submitted for grading, or explicitly discussing and exemplifying the marking criteria with students to help them internalise standards.

Having a good idea about how to improve students’ experience of assessment is one thing, though; making the required modifications to working habits to enact those ideas is another. My recent research into the factors that enable or inhibit changes to assessment practice among primary school teachers has provided some interesting pointers.

As part of my study into primary teachers changing their assessment practice, I looked at the main vehicle for teachers’ professional development in primary schools: the staff meeting. I was expecting to find that staff meetings with particular characteristics – where teachers could discuss how they worked, were encouraged to raise questions, and where the focus on learning was clear – would be significantly linked to subsequent reports of school-wide changes to their assessment practice.

Instead, I found out that the characteristics of the wider workplace seemed more influential. Teachers who felt that their workplaces encouraged collaborative, cross-departmental working and innovation were more likely to also report school-wide changes to how they carried out assessment.

This made me think that the kind of professional learning that helps primary teachers to change the ways that they do their job takes place during the wider working day, through ongoing conversation with colleagues, rather than within the confines of a staff meeting. When I looked at communication style between teaching colleagues, I also found that the activities which school-wide changes to teaching practice seemed to entail – negotiation and agreement of shared goals; reflection upon and review of progress; sharing of best practice; questioning and clarification of aims – were underpinned by an open and dynamic communication style that facilitated the involvement of all in discussion and decision-making. This research was conducted with primary teachers in state-maintained primary schools, a working environment which we might consider somewhat removed from the more selective and purposeful atmosphere of a university. However, it will be interesting to see whether the characteristics of the working environment and the interpersonal communication style experienced by academic staff plays a role in enabling programme-wide changes to aspects of practice as a result of participating in TESTA.

500 Words, News

Should we go ‘The Whole Hog’ with programme-level assessment?

The following post was written by Amy Palmer, BILT Digital Resources Officer.

Since the launch of BILT in 2017, the implementation of programme-level assessment across the University has been a widely-discussed topic. But what do we really mean by programme-level assessment?

Tansy Jessop, while delivering her TESTA workshop in January, outlined her ‘Five Hogs of Programme-Level Assessment’, breaking down the term into five different ways this assessment framework could be implemented.

The first, ‘The Whole Hog’, advocates an integrated and connected assessment plan, running though entire programmes, using capstone and cornerstone assessments to bring together learning from different modules. Teaching is separated from the [summative] assessment, allowing students to make their own connections between content in different modules. This approach is the most widespread understanding of what ‘programme-level assessment’ is and is arguably the simplest implement and there is a clear split between teaching and summative assessment.

The next, ‘Half the Hog’, still has an assessment piece that runs throughout the entire programme, separate from individual modules, but it doesn’t require all assessments to be disconnected from teaching. This connective assessment could be a research project that runs from first to third (or fourth) year and draws on concepts from all of the individual modules. A benefit of this ‘Hog’ is that there is an overall reduction in summative assessments across the degree to make room for the programmatic assessment piece.

The ‘Other half of the Hog’ employs synoptic assessment from across a number of modules (i.e. 50% of the degree modules are assessment via a synoptic assessment while the other 50% have assessments that are directly related to their module’s content). Each module has a combination of formative and one summative assessment, and the synoptic assessment integrates concepts, makes connections between the modules and is challenging for students.

The next pig- or pigs- ‘Both the Hogs together’ (originally named ‘Eat the Hogs Together’, but we didn’t think that was appropriate for our plant-based friends 😊) is when both the curriculum and assessment design is done as a team, using TESTA (programme and student evidence to inform the assessments). Summative assessment is reduced across the entire degree so that students engage more with formative assessments. Teams are encouraged to integrate assessment in the shared process so that everyone has a shared understanding and practice.

The final hog, ‘The Warthog’, is the most radical of approaches. Instead of running parallel modules, students take one module at a time in blocks (for example, one module runs week 1-4, second module runs week 5 – 8, etc.). Assessments are joined up though shared units that weave across the programme. This method has been adopted to some extent at Plymouth University through their immersive induction module in first year.

Some of these ‘hogs’ would be easier to achieve than others, but we don’t know yet which one would create the best outcomes for students. With the amount of modular choice available across most degree programmes, a singular approach would have to be taken at least within a faculty, and potentially across the entire university – it wouldn’t be possible for one programme to undertake a ‘Warthog’ approach while another employed ‘Half the Hog’. But how do we decide which approach to take? And how would this one approach be implemented across the hundreds of programmes we have on offer with limited time for programme teams to sit down and redesign their assessments?

 There are examples of institutions where programme-level assessment has been successfully put into practice (Brunel’s IPA and Bradford’s PASS are two good examples), but we need to understand the impact it has had on student learning, outcomes, wellbeing (both staff and students) before deciding whether going the ‘Whole Hog’ is the right approach for Bristol.


An introduction from Tansy Jessop, our Visiting Professor


Here I am in my Christmas jumper, looking slightly silly #dachshundthroughthesnow, and telling you a bit about myself. First things first, I do have a twelve year old black and tan sausage dog whose origins are close to Bristol. So call my stint at BILT a bit of a return on behalf of my hound! I am absolutely thrilled and honoured to be a Visiting Professor at BILT for the year. My undergraduate years were spent at the University of Cape Town, not dissimilar in size and feel to Bristol but a campus university rather than a city one. From my four years in the fraught 1980s at UCT, I remember feeling both adrift and excited; mystified, enthralled and slightly confused at the relevance of T S Eliot and Catullus. My studies seemed slightly irrelevant in a context of tear gas and angry fists thrust in the air.  As I look back I now know I was experiencing what many students feel but cannot name in relation to their studies. Sarah Mann has written the best work on student alienation and as I read it, I know for myself that this is the root of much of student disengagement in higher education. Particularly for first generation students.  

My interest in alienation and in engaging students is a huge spur to my work in learning and teaching. In leading the ‘Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment’ (TESTA) research and change process for nearly ten years, and working with students and staff in many UK universities, I have encountered alienation in many guises. The defining feature of alienation is an absence of meaning or connection with something expected to bring meaning.  In the context of assessment, it is students disgruntled with the treadmill of repetitive assessments; overloaded with content; finding that their curiosity is not ignited by assessment; that they have little in the way of pedagogic relationship with their tutors in feedback, for example.  Students often experience their modular curriculum as fragmented and knowledge on one unit seems unrelated to another one. TESTA exposes some of the structural flaws in compartmentalised modular curricula. It calls to a much more programmatic and joined up approach to teaching and learning. 

But alienation is not all bad. It is part of what higher education is about as students wrestle with multiple perspectives and try to pick their way through different ways of understanding their disciplines. The soupy sea of ambivalence that higher education invites students to swim in is bound to be a bit unsettling. However, there are wonderful pedagogic ways of lighting beacons along the way for students. Through TESTA, I have seen academics embrace new ways of doing formative assessment, engaging students in challenging, playful and exciting learning which prepares them for summative tasks. I have seen academics stand back and see the whole programme for the first time. This new way of seeing is often a catalyst for programme teams drawing back from content-heavy, facts first approaches, and inviting them to partner with their students in slow learning. The ‘slow professor’ approach to teaching, learning and assessment is all about creating spaces for students to engage, integrate and apply their learning.  I hope over the coming months to share some of these ideas and engage various programmes in the TESTA process. I am really looking forward to getting to know the community at the University of Bristol, with or without my dog.  Definitely without my Christmas jumper.  


Berg, M. and Seeber, B. 2016. The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. Toronto. University of Toronto Press. 

Mann, S. 2001.  Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education. 26 (1).