A successful curriculum is interdependent with a successful assessment. Manuel João Costa from the University of Minho emphasises the importance of institutions understanding their own assumptions about assessment, and remaining open to changing practices, including by partnering with students.
High quality education subsumes a combination of well-designed curricula and learning assessment that is fit for purpose. Both are crucial to ensure student success. Institutions commonly invest significantly more effort in reforming curricula than in reforming assessments, while the latter can lead to better aligning an authentic student experience with the official curriculum. To mitigate the precedence of curriculum over assessment, higher education institutions need to understand their unofficial and unintended perspectives on curriculum and assessment, which implies addressing the unwritten beliefs of academic administrators, staff and students. The co-construction of assessments between teachers and students can pave the way to successful and innovative curricula.
Pedagogical staff development in assessment is necessary to sustain curriculum reform. Often, teacher and student perceptions regarding assessment develop unintentionally, either from personal experiences or from norms, values and beliefs conveyed within higher education institutions. Some of these beliefs show contempt for evidence-based principles of assessment design, as demonstrated in education sciences. For example, the widespread belief that the purpose of assessment is restricted to making judgements about student performance – the “assessment of learning” paradigm. Measuring is an indisputable potential purpose of assessments, but assessments have multiple purposes, such as to inform students about their learning needs – “assessment for learning” –, or to support the development of students’ self-regulatory behaviours – “assessment as learning”. Many teachers are not aware of the extensive literature pointing to the benefits of combining these three assessment paradigms. Pedagogical staff development is critical to address beliefs about assessment that are detrimental to student learning and engagement. The literature also offers useful research informed models to address contemporary challenges such as equity, student agency and transparency in assessments – the EAT Framework. This is why it is crucial to include training on assessment literacy in pedagogical staff training. This will enhance understanding of the fundamental assessment concepts and procedures.
Improving assessment is a challenging journey. Some might start but not finish such a journey, while others might be discouraged from the start. Indeed, implementing changes in assessments is highly demanding as it can elicit strong reactions by all those involved. Therefore, it is important that institutions consider how to support and empower teachers when they experiment and innovate their assessments. Considering that, too often, teachers undertake it as a lonesome journey to changing their own assessment practices, creating or further supporting learning communities among teachers would be fundamental to sustain motivation and provide a safe and supportive environment. Learning communities can be key to organically disseminate and induce changes across departments. In addition, initiatives that recognise and promote excellence in assessment can stimulate teachers to invest in designing and implementing assessments.
Curriculum and assessment are interesting areas where faculty and students can come together in enhancement partnerships. Considering students as partners in developing assessments can result in a feeling of co-ownership of the assessment process and can, therefore, enhance engagement and mitigate resistance towards reforming assessment. This will also contribute to increased student agency and address the issue of equity in assessment. As summarised in a recent scoping review, students could be involved “as self or peer assessors, as co-creators of assessment activities and marking criteria”. Developing student assessment literacy can only benefit the whole process.
Last but not least, the journey towards reforming assessment should be rooted in principles of learning. Assessment should be aligned with learning goals, be embedded in the curriculum, and in teaching and learning approaches. Seeing assessment as an integral part of the curriculum will lead to a purposeful and systemic alignment of teaching and assessment. This is a principle to keep in mind in current times, as higher education institutions are urged to digitally enhance learning and teaching and offer students more flexible and personalised learning experiences. Digital technologies hold the potential to generate more and better feedback and interaction (instant, anonymous, personalised or collaborative). This should be embraced and mastered as an opportunity for improving learning assessment – as well as an interesting open door for considering digitalisation in curriculum. Still, as always, it will take two (curriculum and assessment) to tango in higher education.
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