Educational Assessment – why bother?

In the realm of education there is a variety of pedagogic strategies and theories, but to substantiate these we must have a proven form of validation to assure both the success of the educational experience itself and verify the learning outcomes of the student themselves. We may find, however, that students and even on occasion educators may not see the point of an assessment as part of a course feeling that merely the participation is enough. So why should we validate their knowledge?

For this matter to be overcome we must justify the validation itself, but from various readings the issue would appear to sometimes arise from the usage of the wrong assessment type (Gibbs & Simpson 2005). The challenge in using these assessments is to find the right assessment to validate the learning experience since the assessments need to match the measurement of the intended outcomes and be an appropriate means of testing for the audience. For instance a validation for a school student may not be appropriate to use in a professional environment.

In an educational setting, assessment is traditionally used as a form of validation of the students’ work and development. We most commonly see this used in an empirical manner where the goal is to assess components of the knowledge, around a rote learning form of strategy. The idea being that the students have memorised and absorbed the information given to them and can regurgitate it in a test environment. This can be seen to relate in its approach to Skinner and his behaviourist theories (Skinner 1979) when the output is that of automated response, or even similar to Gagne on a much deeper level where he describes this in his nine events of instruction (Gagne 1974) with stage 8 – ‘Assess Performance’, to lead from the ability to simply regurgitate the information to ‘Enhance Retention’ of the knowledge itself in his final stage. This is a summative approach to assessment.

However in a higher education learning environments we tend to see the focus of the assessment brought away from the traditional empirical methods and more geared towards an ideal of involvement and participation. This could be due to the fact that school education is education with a purpose of getting you ready to pass a state exam, so development comes secondary to an empirical result. Whilst further and higher educations are mostly aimed at developing you to function in a working environment where continual growth and collaboration are generally most sought after than rote memorisation skills.
With this in mind we can see that the assessment that are created try to be more open in their approach for these higher learning institutes. We see a focus on rationalisation rather than memorisation where the student now needs to research for themselves and develop according to their own interests and the ability to rationalise and discuss their findings is the main area of importance. The assessments can now be varied and a formative approach can be seen to show the students’ knowledge and understanding, using ideas from portfolios and participation based assessments where we can now gain an overview of development or even break it down into increments of development.

In these formative scenarios where we can see development happening through the stages, the idea is that we can assess the quality of the students’ achievements whilst they are still in the process of learning. This is to say that although the students are being tested on their performance, the test itself may be open-ended. In the formative scenario, the student cannot know too much, obviously a limit can be reached in the time frame but the limit is set by the student and their involvement, this is in direct opposition to summative where the goal is to achieve only the designated levels to be tested. This could, in turn, be nearly perceived as putting a cap on the education of the student. e.g. “in learning this course material and that is all you will need to know to pass the exam”. This isn’t to say summative doesn’t have its own benefits, we will touch on later, but it puts to question, how or even do we match our assessment to out desired learning outcomes.

Assessment is by no means limited to the academic environment; in industry there are many valid reasons for us to use assessment on a regular basis, from initial interviewing to progression and development; these again tend to be a mixture of formative and summative assessments dependent on the area needing to be gauged.

A summative assessment in these situations may not just be a knowledge test, for example we can see these being a technical test in applying for a computer job role or a maths skill test for an actuarial position. In some circumstances though we may use a language test to assess an individual’s skill with a language before being brought into work in a multicultural environment; even though an interview scenario may be more beneficial it is not always a feasible solution due to time constraints and location considerations, but in deciding our appropriate assessment method we do consider if they are at an appropriate level for the business? The difference in this sort of scenario is we as a business consider that the assessment is a tool, unlike the academic environment, used not to see the limits of the individual knowledge but to see if they have the skill level required to work in the business, which is why the summative approach is just as effective and in fact more cost and time effective.

In a developmental direction however we can see in some creative careers how an ongoing portfolio of work is kept to display not just one’s ability but a timeframe over how they have changed. This was commonly seen in an art and design career, but now is used in a technical role, to display a history of software development, for example. Some roles will now go so far as to develop entire training structures to build an individual for a role. In these, from my own experience in the industry, the student keeps an ongoing portfolio of work and development and completes a final testing as well. This shows the potential for development of the individual whilst showing a definitive knowledge of certain areas. All this is aimed to be done within reason of the role; however, in certain areas, an individual would need to know direct from memory, in others they would have time to research. To assure the candidate is properly versed in this the testing must be appropriately matched to the intended skills.

I have mentioned the point of finding the right assessment for matching the learning targets but how do we do this? There seems to be no set instruction on how to approach the matter, but there are noted considerations on how we should broach the subject. For instance a primary concern as mentioned above is to be clear in you targets, a well defined outcome is essential in directing towards the correct assessment. There are two perspectives to this point, the students and the educators. Does the assessment technique benefit the student and consider, does the proposed assessment method actually prove a knowledge or understanding of the topic for the educator to assess them? As noted for some business scenarios an assessment does not necessarily need to be a benefit but rather a method of skill testing. This is also a consideration, why create a portfolio when all you need is to know the person has a basic understanding? It’s of no benefit to either party and creates undue work.

When we say educational assessment – why bother? The simple answer is; how could we not bother? In reflection when we discuss assessment it may not always be apparent, especially to the assessed as to the benefits and reasoning behind the method and approach. This can be mostly overcome by merely explaining the logic behind the practice specific to the given scenario. Each assessment is, or at least should be, there with purpose. In education it is used to develop the student, and in business assessment is a means to assess performance. Without assessment we could not validate skills or knowledge of an individual or group. The challenge though is not when to use assessment but what assessment to use? Each assessment should be well planned out to best fit the desired outcomes, if the assessment is appropriately selected and implemented a better learning experience can be created.

Gagne, R.M. & Briggs,L. J. , 1974, Principles of instructional design, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Texas.
Gibbs & Simpson, 2004, ‘Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning’  ,Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 1
Nitko, A.J. & Brookhart., 2006, ‘Educational Assessment in Students’, Pearson, Accessed 22 February 2010, from
Skinner, 1979, The shaping of a behaviourist, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.