Overassessment, stress, and university education

homework-2521144_640On 1st August 2018, I took on a new role as Director of Student Education in my department and that has got me thinking more practically about the higher education teaching stories that I read. Since I now have a position where I can effect change, are there positive steps that can be taken? The first story I came across was this from the Times Higher Education Supplement:

The modular structures of degree programmes have resulted in a stressful assessment environment for students in UK universities, according to a recent study. It is not just the volume of assessment but also the ways that students are evaluated that is hindering meaningful learning…

This won’t come as a surprise to many university staff. Assessment and Feedback are routinely the lowest scores on the National Student Survey (NSS – the main tool by which students evaluate their degrees), staff are always accused of over-assessing, and students are fixated on strategies that maximise marks rather than maximising learning (“is this on the test” is the classic refrain). The problem harms all concerned, as well, with assessment representing a large proportion of the least popular work that academics do (love to teach, hate to mark). However, it is worth understanding how we got to this point.

Student choice

One of the principal reasons for maintaining a high number of modules (and, hence, assessments) is the need to offer a diversity of courses for the students. A student at my institution will take 120 credits of courses each year, and modules are largely 10 or 20 credits. By offering fewer, larger modules, the courses risk becoming too prescriptive, which might deter potential applicants and, ultimately, harm the recruitment and income of the institution.

Staff flexibility

Smaller modules also allow for modules to be switched around depending on the availability of staff. If a member of staff who teaches a large, compulsory module is unavailable for whatever reason (sabbatical, moving institutions, long-term sick, maternity, etc) then it is difficult to reorganise teaching staff without damaging the quality of the teaching delivery. Larger sets of smaller modules represent a more agile approach to curriculum planning.


In a classic example of tail-wags-dog, the availability of teaching space and times is a key constraint on the design of curricula. As with the staff flexibility, smaller modules are far easier to schedule as they require fewer contact hours. The result is that blocks of time are not needed and so the teaching hours can fit into timetables more easily.

Direct assessment

By breaking up programmes of study into modules, we atomise the components of those subjects. The result is that we feel the need to examine and assess learning in each individual component, leading to an ever increasing number of smaller examinations. If you want to know if someone has learned their French Romantic poetry from 1810-1813 then you need an exam on that. Perhaps a more general examination on French Romantic poetry from 1810-1820 might not be sufficient to assess the particular learning outcomes for your period of interest.

So what’s the solution?

As far as I can see, there are two potential solutions but each requires a change in the way that assessment is considered within higher education (at least at my institution).

  1. The first is that you can have the same number of modules but with fewer examinations. Historically, some institutions examined an entire year of study in one or two examinations (within the sciences, this might have been practical and theory exams). There is no reason why we should not have a smaller number of examinations that synthesise information from across multiple modules. Better still would be if those examinations were conducted in a meaningful way. By that, I mean not asking students to write three hours essays. There is no point in their lives (unless they do subsequent degrees) that they will be asked to do that kind of assessment again. A more practical assessment might involve taking a real-world problem and solving it, as in problem-based learning modules or service learning approaches. Such assessment types have a clear application, resemble the kind of work that some students would be doing in the workplace after graduation, provide key transferable skills through the application (rather than regurgitation) of knowledge, and engage the students to a greater degree than an abstract essay.
  2. Simpler in concept, but more complex in execution (see above) is to have fewer modules. Many academics build careers on carving out niches for themselves around particular topics and the delineation of those topics from the surrounding research landscape is central to their identity. There is nothing stopping disciplines from teaching overarching modules within which those subdisciplines can sit. Within my field of ecology, you can find any number of subdisciplines (for a big list, see Wikipedia). However, most could be covered in modules on (i) populations, (ii) communities, (iii) global change, and (iv) behaviour. The main barrier to this is that redesigning curricula is an enormous task for which academic staff simply do not have the time. I have been involved in some consolidation of teaching that has sought to minimise workload while rationalising teaching (I hope to have a paper written about that work to report on soon!), but that is an unusual case.

In summary, there are some big challenges in higher education assessment that persist through institutional inertia and logistical limitations. There are solutions but those require disruptive change (and all of the associated change management and investment of time) that is unappealing when workloads are already high. One of my jobs will be to try to rationalise assessment in order to enhance student outcomes without imposing unreasonable expectations on colleagues – far from an easy task but one that is important to address.


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