Who is assessment for?

Assessment is a huge part of who universities are. It provides evidence that programmes are rigorous and relevant, and can play a decisive role in how students approach their learning. Despite what Homer Simpson might think, most students want proof that they know their stuff; it’s one of the main reasons university chancellors aren’t crying themselves to sleep over the MOOC movement just yet.

But where assessment was once just a way for a university to rank students against its own academic standards, it now has to meet the needs of a wide range of stakeholders: cost-savvy students looking for value for money and the motivation to continue; governments trying to compete in a global economy; employers looking for transferable skills; university administrators keen to push up league tables.

Is it realistic to expect our current systems of assessment – predominantly exams and essays – to fulfil all of these roles? Peter Knight (2002) says that

Radical thinking is needed about what summative assessment is for, who it is for, what it can do, what it cannot do cheaply and what it ought not to be asked to do at all. (p. 284)

Knight goes on to suggest that we might need to take ‘a necessary backward step’ and only assess what we can measure in an affordable, reliable and fair way. Can online technologies help assessment to be all things to all people: rigourous yet scalable, personal yet cost-effective? Can it focus on both learning product and learning process? Can it produce graduates who are academically able and ready for the world of work? If not, we might need to start revising our expectations a bit.

There are also financial realities to consider. With the end of free university tuition (outside Scotland, at least), will the person who pays the tuition bill have the final say on what assessment (and, by implication, the university) eventually stands for – whether that’s the students themselves, their parents, sponsors or funding bodies?


Knight, P. T. (2002) ‘Summative assessment in higher education: practices in disarray’, Studies in Higher Education, 27 (3), pp. 275–286.


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