Time to put our questions to the test: Reflections on assessment


In the past few weeks I have been thinking quite often about the issues of assessment and feedback, both at a more general level and in the context of active teaching and learning methods and e-learning/ blended learning. These are two very important aspects of the learning design process that are, unfortunately, too often overlooked or not thoroughly thought of. It is all too easy to fall in the trap of standardising and simplifying tests with a view of making evaluation and grading easier. It is much more challenging and time consuming to reflect on a few basic questions before developing assignments.

So I thought I would use a few opportunities I came across in the recent weeks to explore some of these issues together with peers with the aim of sharing our experiences and learning from each other. One such occasion was in the context of our TEMPUS financed project “Innovating Teaching and Learning in European Studies” (INOTLES), where assessment and feedback were the topics of a webinar organised as part of an online teacher training on active learning methods. You can watch the recording of the webinar here.

The other opportunity came shortly after, at the 20th edition of the Online Educa Conference in Berlin last week, giving me the chance to consolidate on the ideas gathered during the webinar and discuss them further with other education professionals during a workshop I facilitated. This blog post will focus on assessment and I will follow up with some reflections on feedback in the next post.


When talking about assessment, there are a few things that we need to carefully consider before just going ahead and drafting questions and essay topics.

What are we aiming to assess?

Baring in mind the variety of learning objectives, we usually assess different things we expect our students to have learned throughout our courses. From testing the knowledge they acquired to assessing the way they perform in a simulation game, from assessing their writing skills to testing their collaborative work abilities, our main aim is to check whether students understood the message(s) we wanted to transmit in our courses.

How do we assess? What assessment tools & methods do we use?

Very much linked to what specific aspect of the learning experience we want to assess (discussed above), the tools and methods we are using are equally important. Using a Multiple Choice test to assess the students’ ability of analysis is obviously not the best solution. We need to design the right tools and this is very often linked to the teaching method used. If by using Problem Based Learning (PBL) and simulations we aim to test not only the knowledge students accumulated but also their negotiation, collaborative work and self-regulated learning skills (among others), when using online and blended learning one of the learning outcomes should also be the enhancement of students’ digital literacy (capacity to find and process information online). Developing assessment instruments for all these various aspects can prove to be a challenge. One idea would be to involve the students in developing assignments; after all, isn’t the ability to ask questions an important learning outcome we want them to take away? Another important aspect is to constantly develop our skills, as educators, and one of these skills is designing assessment tools which best suit our learning goals. Not only designing, but also revisiting and redesigning assignments, reflecting on how they work and striving to improve them; sharing them with peers and getting their comments; accepting it is hard to get it perfect and there is no magic formula; ultimately putting yourselves in your students’ shoes and simply asking “what have I learned and how can I measure that?”. This is an exercise we probably all should do a bit more often.

How transparent are our assessment criteria?

Moreover, communicating the assessment criteria in a clear way to the students (and perhaps, why not, developing the criteria with the students themselves) is also very important and it contributes to the efforts we should make to manage students expectations.

Reflect. Reflect. Reflect.

And because sometimes (quite often) we want to measure more than accumulated knowledge, we want to measure students’ performance in a certain activity (e.g. a simulation game), we might come to the conclusion that traditional assessment tools are not enough. Even our own observation is not enough. So why not asking the students to reflect on their own learning, to think about what they learned but also about how they learned, what went wrong and what was right?

And what about the grades?

Another aspect worth considering is the link between assessment and grades. More and more, students’ learning is dependent on “what will the exam be like”, what exactly will be tested and this is not a very positive development, as it distorts the learning process. If we can’t (yet) get rid of grades, we should definitely encourage students to reconsider their grade-seeking mentality and focus on making the most of their learning experience. We, as teachers, should try to create safe spaces where students can fail without any consequences and learn from their failure, where they can learn together and from each other and most of all where they can feel responsible for their own learning, in and beyond the classroom. And you’ll probably agree that this can hardly be fully captured by a grade. Assessment should not simply evaluate learning. It should be an instrument to facilitate learning. And that is why the role of feedback in association with assessment is extremely important.

NOTE: originally published in The Educationalist on 09/12/2015,