8 Assessment

by Sven Åke Bjørke, University of Agder, Norway, March 2017 

Assessment and grading

The traditional exam is perceived as a tool to control or verify that the student has read the curriculum and is able to reproduce at least parts of it or display certain kinds of knowledge or skills. Some studies expect the student to display ability of independent, critical approaches and use of relevant, valid and reliable sources. In addition, the student should also be able to collaborate with peers, be creative and indicate higher levels of insight and understanding.

A troubling question is: does the traditional exam simply assess a student’s ability to pass an exam, or does it actually assess real competence?

Unfortunately, the traditional exam format may not always be appropriate to measure the competences and skills mentioned above. An additional problem is that the sensors’ judgement of the exam results may vary considerably. There are at times good reasons to question the alignment between the intended learning outcomes, the teaching and learning methods and the method of assessment. The assessment methods tend to influence the learning processes, and therefore have a formative impact, even if the exam was intended to be strictly summative.

Formative or summative?

Summative assessment is an independent activity taking place after completion of the learning process. The traditional school exam is summative, and simply checks what has been learnt. There are several forms in addition to the written “school exam”. An oral examination with immediate feedback is also summative. The “home exam”, where students have access to external sources and given several days to complete, is also summative. The portfolio might combine formative and summative assessments. During the learning process, the teacher or tutor may give formative advice on how to improve the product. On course completion, a summative assessment of the portfolio is given by the teacher or an external sensor. Home exams and portfolios are often complemented by summative oral exams.  Home exams, portfolios and oral exams can all be implemented online. On modern computers there are software tools for identification, with video camera, finger print or iris scanning to ensure candidate identity if that is deemed necessary.

Formative Summative
Assessment for learning Assessment of learning
Decontextualized Contextualized
Part of the learning process Separated from the learning process
Occurs several times during the learning process Occurs at the end of the learning process
May consider cognitive, social and motivational aspects Considers mainly cognitive aspects

A “compromise” between summative and formative assessment might be to structure the course into modules, each with some kind of assessment with detailed feedback on how to do better, and with or without grades. These smaller exams will mainly have a formative function, but may also be compiled to a final summative grade. A series of small exams may be complemented by a final, small summative exam. A series of small exams may give a more just grade than one big exam. The big, final exam situation is extremely stressing for some persons, while others might only be positively affected. This means that the big final exam assesses how good a person is in passing an exam, but not necessarily the actual competence.

The small exams can as a rule be incorporated and contextualized in the learning process. An additional advantage is that the teacher obtains indications on how the students are doing and what they struggle with, while the students get valuable feedback.

Read more

Assessing collaborative learning

Grading tools


Peer assessment

Student Portfolios

Formative assessment


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4 Self-instructional   5 Collaborative    6 Make courses
7 Design VLEs   8 Assessment  9 Transition  10  ToC