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Tensions with Programme-Level Assessment

The following post was written by Helen Heath, a reader in Physics and BILT Fellow. 

I am a reader in the School of Physics at Bristol and currently 1st year coordinator and head of the newly formed Physics Education Group (PEG), which is a group for the pathway 3 staff within the School of Physics. I’ve been a BILT fellow since September 2017 with a focus on programme level assessment and this has been renewed for the next academic year.

While looking into programme level assessment I have felt that there are significant tensions. The move to more formative and less summative assessment should help student development but fewer summative assessments inevitably means that these assessments are higher stakes. Devising good innovative assessment methods that are targeted at testing the learning outcomes is desirable but too many different types of assessment can be confusing to students.

As part of the University move towards programme level assessment several Schools took part in assessment labs and have been working on moving their assessment to a more programme level approach. I am in the process of interviewing those involved with these pilot projects. I would like to understand the challenges they have faced in the programme design and the institutional changes, e.g. to regulations, that need to be made to enable the implementation of the revised assessment schemes they have proposed. I am also interested in how the perceptions of what programme level assessment is vary across the University.

Although the content of courses varies, the principles of good assessment design should be applicable to all programmes however it seems clear to me, from the first interviews, that there are structural differences between programmes that can hinder or help the adoption this approach. Joint honours programmes, for example, can pose a challenge. The programme level approach can offer the chance of an assessment which brings together the strands in these types of programmes, but this then requires clarity in the management of a joint assessment. Schools that have very many different joint honours programmes need to avoid a confusing range of different assessments.

Schools piloting programme level assessment are also in very different points in their curriculum review cycle. Adopting a programme level approach where a review is underway anyway is much more natural than making large changes to assessment when results of a previous review are still working their way through programmes.

As a second strand of my work I have been thinking about what programme level assessment might look like in my own School. We have joint programmes with Schools in our own Faculty and outside as well as several “Physics with” programmes but we have a well-defined Core in all programmes which could be assessed at year level. The “straw person” proposal for a way forward is submitted to our next Teaching Committee. Hopefully it promotes a lively discussion.

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