Pandemic Pedagogy – Beyond essays and exams: changing the rules of the assessment game

This post is part of History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy project. For more about the initiative, follow HUK’s blog and Twitter feed.


Assessment, carrots and sticks

Assessment is an integral part of instruction, as it determines whether or not the goals of education are being met.’ (Edutopia, 2008)

The centrality of assessment to learning in higher education is rarely questioned. Experience has taught many of us that nothing motivates students quite like a looming deadline or an upcoming exam. Students channel their energies into activities that  determine final results – a strong motivating factor. And educational theory stresses that well-designed assessments can encourage students to engage in deep learning (Briggs, 2015). But overemphasis on grades can lead to problems.

We sometimes imagine that it is because exams and essays encourage students to engage deeply and to hone their skills that the students see them as important. But it is much more likely that we are encouraging an instrumental approach to education. Students jump through the hoops that we have put there in order to secure the grades that they want – they learn in spite of our approach to assessment, not because of it. If deeper learning takes place, it is pretty much an accidental side effect of that process.   

Some students are very good at playing the exam-essay game that we have devised for them, although there have long been indications that exams favour certain demographic groups over others (Brookings Institute, 2017). We can do better, devising assessment regimes that include all students. Indeed, there are some exciting examples of innovative assessment in history out there already (e.g. see Lucinda Matthews Jones’ 2019 blog post on creative assessments and the #unessay; Chris Jones’s 2018 post talks about using the approach in an early American history course too). The shift to online assessments is an opportunity for more of us to embrace more innovative forms of assessment that will engage students in meaningful learning, develop their skills, knowledge and identity as historians, and better prepare them for future study and/or the world of work. 

Moving online: emergency (traditional) assessment 

I’m well aware that this call-to-arms may not be to everyone’s taste and I’m certainly not suggesting that the essay and the exam have no pedagogic value (well, I’m not really sure about the exam, but it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on). What I’m saying is that our students will be better nourished by a more varied and interesting assessment diet that blends traditional and innovative forms. 

Of course, traditional forms of assessment can easily be reconfigured so that they can be done and administered online. Indeed, aside from the odd visit to the library, the majority of essays are largely researched, written and submitted digitally nowadays. Exams are a bit more problematic, but the ‘emergency’ phase of online instruction from March-June 2020 showed that even they can be done online, as take-home tests (the fancy name is ‘time-constrained assignments’) or using online tools such as ProctorU. Essays and exams can therefore be done online unproblematically. We can do more, though.  

Engaging constructively with the digital world

There are already cases of historians developing innovative assessments that promote meaningful learning about the digital world. A good example is Charles West’s MA module in medieval history at the University of Sheffield, in which students learn about how information is presented on Wikipedia, before researching and writing (or improving) pages on topics that they have studied (West, 2018). Over the past few years, increasing numbers of historians have recognised the value of engaging students in learning that involves exploring how knowledge is presented and constructed online and even contributing to digital knowledge creation within the discipline. 

This represents something of a step-change because until fairly recently many course handbooks and introductory lectures began with dire warnings for students of the consequences of using websites such as Wikipedia as sources. 

no wikipedia image

Image source: http://medias.liberation.fr/photo/592891-arton2684.jpg?modified_at=1200590185&width=960

It has always struck me as unrealistic to expect students not to use such a readily available source and in some sense dishonest (as a student I often found it a useful starting point when moving into unfamiliar territory, and continue to do so). A more productive way forward is to devise activities that develop students’ digital literacies (for more see Doug Belshaw’s #neverendingthesis; plus some quick hints and tips), to enable them to filter ‘good’ from substandard online sources. Library staff have played a big role in many institutions and are experts we should turn to for support and as collaborators in this endeavour (see the 2017 statement from the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions). 

The key point here is that online sources are not ‘inappropriate’ or ‘unacademic’ in and of themselves. Rather, it is important to educate students in how to engage with and make use of the internet productively. Given that source evaluation and analysis is what historians do, it seems to me that it shouldn’t be too difficult to figure out how to do this. 

Building in the digital world: a new way forward?   

But perhaps we  can go even further, beyond assessments that cultivate students’ digital capabilities (i.e. making them better at doing stuff online and navigating the digital world) and engage them with assessments that ask them to actively create things online. Historians have been using blogs and wikis in their teaching for well over a decade (Russell Olwell’s 2008 blog offers reflections from an early adopter of blogging). Several of my colleagues at the University of Lincoln have experimented successfully with using blogs to present the results of student work to the public (e.g. on Jade Shepherd’s Mad or Bad? module).  

But what happens if we ask students to create and curate online resources and spaces for themselves? Even deeper engagement and learning, perhaps. A good example of an here is Arthur Burns’ module, At the Court of King George III, at King’s College London that has students present the results of their research into the Georgian Papers using Xerte, an open educational resource. 

Such projects require students to think about audiences beyond the marker and their fellow students. (In the case of essays and exams, not even their peers will get to see what students have done.) The focus shifts to encouraging students to consider how to present information engagingly, how to incorporate visual and other media in their work, and how to write in different registers (i.e. it’s still developing writing skills, just not in the 2-3,000-word-essay format). Innovative online assessments thus open up opportunities for students to engage with audiences beyond the academy and to develop a far wider range of relevant disciplinary and career skills. 

Such opportunities for students to engage in knowledge production for consumption beyond the academy are not any less ‘rigorous’ than essays or exams. In fact, they rely on many of the same research and writing skills as traditional forms of assessment. Better yet, they also encourage a new awareness of how and why knowledge artifacts turn out the way they do. The more creatively we engage with the digital landscape and the more actively and systematically we explore its pedagogic potential, the  better our chances of supporting our students to become capable and highly-skilled historians in the present and future.  


My previous post as part of the Pandemic Pedagogy project was on designing learning. Next week, I’ll be writing one about feedback.

This entry was posted in active learning, digital history, digital literacy, E-learning, essay writing, exams, lockdown, online learning, pandemic, student as producer, Student research, students. Bookmark the permalink.

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