High quality, effective, and engaging assessments are a vital part of the student learning process, as well as being important for student experience and institutional reputation. The modern global business school faces several challenges in assessment and feedback, some of which are common to other University departments and some of which are unique. In this blog, we set out some of our key thoughts on this important issue in terms of the purpose, content, what assessment is, and methods used for assessments. Moves to online teaching brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic has brought many of these issues into sharp focus, and this will continue as business schools strive to innovate teaching approaches that include more digitally-enhanced delivery.
First, purpose – why are we assessing students in the first instance?
Assessment provides an opportunity for students to measure and evaluate their personal progress and development. Assessment provides a means by which the individual and others can establish a level of expertise or knowledge within a particular domain; an important foundation to moving into the world of work. An important element of the purpose are professional accreditations, which are increasingly part of a business school’s mission. Advance HE have stated in their project on assessment and feedback, assessments must teach what accreditors want – potentially posing a tension. Accreditations come with requirements for assessment, often in the form of ‘assurance for learning’ standards. A challenge here is to have robust assessments that can be articulated to accreditors, whilst demonstrating progress and continuous improvement in the curriculum relative to the goals of the programme and the accreditation. The challenge is to demonstrate attainment of these standards throughout a programme of study and means that academics must design assessments which enable the best outcomes for student learning.
Second, content – what needs to be assessed?
This is often unique to subjects, such as those taught in business schools, which are perceived as having a vocational or practical focus. A central issue in business school assessments is balancing theoretical and practical requirements, often in one piece of assessment. On the one hand, there is a recognised need to prepare students for the world of work. This suggests practical assessments of a type that could be used in the workplace, be it conducting competitor analyses or designing a marketing strategy. Concurrently, assessments need to meet academic standards, such as demonstrating critical thinking, amongst other requirements. This can often present itself as a tension. Yet as Kurt Lewin said, there is ‘nothing as practical as a good theory’. Thus, business schools must strive to balance the demands required of assessment through the principle articulated by Lewin: that by developing critical thinking which enables the individual to appropriately apply theory to practice, the value for the individual and their contribution to the world of work is supported.
There is also a challenge of having assessments meet wider objectives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals or internal corporate social responsibility strategies. This raises questions of how assessments align to these goals and how they help a business school drive forward its mission.
Third – what is assessment?
There can sometimes be a gap in what students perceive assessment to include. Students largely see it as a final piece of coursework or an exam for which they should receive a mark and feedback. This discounts all the effort that staff put into answering queries, reflecting on their views, giving feedback in workshops and on online platforms, and providing formative feedback which does not contribute to the student’s assessed mark. This can impact on the feedback that students give in National Student Surveys as they base their views on direct assessments rather than the whole module experience.
Fourth, method – how do we best assess students?
Empowering staff to introduce innovations is also a challenge. While the pandemic has introduced a raft of innovative practices across the HE sector, a key question for the near future is how will they be sustained? Principally, how will students respond to continuing online/digital teaching and assessments and how much will this be perceived as innovation in terms of assessments? Tried and tested assessments, such as essays, exams, and presentations will never go out of fashion, but there is scope for new forms of assessment which stretch students. For example, creating videos, doing work with external organisations, and completing online wikis all have scope to offer new approaches to assessments, but this must be balanced with academic rigour.
Furthermore, any innovations in assessment need to balance quality versus quantity, as a key part of assessment is feedback. With growing student numbers and increasing expectations of students, staff feel pressure to deliver high quality assessments that also enable them to provide timely quality feedback. This means sustainable models of assessment involving, for example, applications, online platforms, peer assessments, should be considered. This will require both students and staff to accept and embrace these changes to make them happen. An increasingly diverse and international student cohort also requires making sure that students have an equal chance to perform well. This can be a particular challenge in situations where the majority of students are non-native English speakers or are unfamiliar with the approach to learning and assessment within a British/UK context.
The University of Leeds is meeting these challenges head on through the ‘Curriculum Redefined’ project as part of the Strategy 2020-2030. Through collaboration across the University, we are seeking to establish baseline standards of inclusive learning and teaching, inclusive pedagogies, and effective assessments. This means that staff at the University of Leeds will not only be well versed in the challenges of designing robust and engaging assessments but will have the skills and support to do so. We hope to see recognition of the importance and challenges staff and students face in terms of assessment become a clear focus across the HEI sector so that best practice and the student experience can be improved for all.
Nick Williams is Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Leeds. His research focuses on entrepreneurship and economic development.
Isla Kapasi is a Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on entrepreneurship and experiences of poverty.
Edgar Meyer is Deputy Dean of Leeds University Business School.