In secondary schools in England at the moment, students are preparing for public examinations which may represent the final assessment adaptations to Covid-19.
Undergraduates who have studied in the UK and are now in their first and second years may have already experienced this in different forms: Centre Assessed Grading (CAG) in 2020; and subsequently Teacher Assessed Grading (TAG) in 2021. Indeed, students currently in their second year of undergraduate studies may not have had an in-person assessment since their GCSEs; some first year undergraduate students may never have experienced one.
These adjustments in the last three years may be characterised by:
- Turbulence between planned linearity and practical modularity in assessment
- Adaptations to disciplinary and interdisciplinary skills (and knowledge)
- Attitudinal considerations around fairness and assessment culture
So what are the implications for teaching and learning in higher education?
Through recognition of the developing context of secondary assessment, we can acknowledge and anticipate individual, programmatic and institutional adjustments which may best support the transition of students into, and success within, higher education.
As the current group of students in Years 11 and 13 approach GCSE and A Level examinations, there are a number of aspects which have been undercurrents in secondary education for the past two years which now surface more visibly as exam dates become fixed in students’ (and teachers’) minds; such themes which were perhaps not quite as sharply in focus in the TAG/CAG iterations.
What comes into sharpest focus at the moment is concerns over ‘lost learning’ and the efficacy of ‘recovery curricula’ which have driven a lot of the agendas in schools. In part this has constituted an evaluation of the successes (or failures) of remote learning or blended learning, but also consideration of curriculum mapping, sequencing and opportunities to address ‘gaps in learning’. There’s been a considerable debate about how healthy it is to create narratives around ‘lost learning’ and the impact this has on student wellbeing in what is often a time of understandable stress and anxiety.
The extent to which an a priori approach to undergraduate programme knowledge and transitional units is taken may be worth considering. Planning which types or modes of assessment are interleaved across different years and modules of study may come into sharper focus; what elements of our teaching and learning repertoire can be best deployed to connect knowledge and skills to a broader, more holistic assessment framework?
From my own experience, students in my Year 11 English Literature class will not have studied a GCSE poetry anthology and this will mean a need for planning consideration around approaches to study of unseen poetry from different literary eras at A level. I’m very mindful in our lessons to couch this in terms which don’t stress what we haven’t done, but emphasise the understanding students already have and reassure them of the opportunities we as an institution will plan to reflexively develop to integrate and hone these skills. Harland et al. (2015) write of the need for a ‘pedagogy of care’ and this phrase is one which I return to.
For students in the past two years, planned GCSE and A level linearity will have been replaced by more modularity as schools have set smaller more frequent summative assessments. This year, the return to more of a linear form of assessment has been complemented by the provision of advance information and support materials. Ofqual’s recent postcard to students of the ‘jigsaw’ outlines this approach:
‘Postcard’ for students created by Ofqual (2022)
Again, how students will draw on these support materials and the extent to which advance information may narrow students’ focus are real areas for consideration. Students taking GCSE English Language, for example, have known since February that they will only be asked to write an article as part of their non-fiction assessment, so can effectively put aside focus on speech writing or letter writing. With many UK students increasingly having specialised domains in their A Level choices and a potential narrowing of their interdisciplinary skills, careful thought may need to be given where discrete opportunities are planned to teach (and re-teach) these skills if they are returned to.
Finally, there is how students are feeling about impending public examinations.
An image I’ve shared with students before is Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’ (1768). Amongst our discussions of its conservative representations and students’ rejections of its stereotypes around proprietorial knowledge, we also talk about how this also serves to depict the different feelings and reactions when there is an expectation to prove knowledge – that this is evidence of understanding carried to a dramatic, performative level.
In a previous post I explored ideas about how assessments should feel. It may seem strange for a cohort of students to feel a sense of munificence towards a qualifications, examinations and assessment regulator. In the longer term, consideration might also be made of the extent to which this strangeness of feeling may manifest itself in terms of students feeling their understanding and attainment has been judged differently to previous or subsequent years and possible implications on academic confidence. The extent to which the success of students’ transition to university, their progression and retention on course programmes is linked to their experiences and perceptions of A Level may be difficult to judge, but their sense of belonging is certainly something to be continually mindful of and responsive to.
TESTA course evaluations can offer a useful insight into many of these surfacing issues. For individual (both students and staff) it may be a case of avoiding adopting a deficit model approach to learning and teaching. However, in broader institutional terms of being reflective, mindful and strategic when invoking interdisciplinary skills or connecting to schemas through integrated assessment design – TESTA can offer a timely opportunity to reflect on how changing cohorts’ experience such aspects of their study.
Harland, T., McLean, A., Wass, R., Miller, E., Nui Sim, K. (2015). An assessment arms race and its
fallout : high-stakes grading and the case for slow scholarship. Assessment & Evaluation in
Higher Education, 40 (4), 528-541. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2014.931927
Ofqual. (2022). Additional help for students taking exams in summer 2022: postcard. Available at:
Additional help for students taking exams in summer 2022: postcard – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)