The impact of the pandemic on assessment – what will the exams of the future look like?

21 October 2021
Posted by Study Group

Teacher Perspectives Blog Series from Study Group

Introduced by Dr Mark Cunnington, Chief Operating Officer for the UK and Europe at Study Group.

We are delighted to share the final article in our ‘Teacher Perspectives’ blog series from Ailsa Campbell, Head of English at Study Group’s Leeds International Study Centre in the UK.  

In this blog, Ailsa focuses on the impact of the pandemic on assessment. Ailsa explores how we worked closely with our university partners to turn traditional modes of assessment into more flexible and progressive, yet robust techniques.  

As Ailsa explains “a realisation that ‘back to normal’ might not mean ‘back to the way we did it before’ began to dawn. Many of the changes made to our assessment strategy had been so successful that returning to previous policies seemed regressive.” 

Ailsa’s full blog is available below.  

The impact of the pandemic on assessment – what will the exams of the future look like?

By Ailsa Campbell, Head of English at Study Group’s Leeds International Study Centre in the UK.

At the first onset of lockdown, promoting continuity in the student experience took priority. In terms of assessments, many of us attempted to carbon-copy our face-to-face exams, transplanting them online as quickly as possible. Given the suddenness of the lockdown announcement, this temporary approach seemed appropriate. The students had spent most of the year studying in person and simply needed to complete their final assessments online. Quick changes were made; online exam platforms were researched, and the roles of our e-Learning Champions became even more central than before. These were crisis responses, and they effectively bridged the gap until the 2019/20 academic year students finished their courses.  

However, the rapidity of the switch raised a number of questions. Was it easier, or more desirable for students to cheat when they were online? Would assessments completed during this time be considered less valuable than others? UK high-school students’ predicted exam scores were translated into their final results, an emergency measure that was almost immediately criticised. The message was clear: the more variables and risks inherent in the assessment delivery, the more stringent the countermeasures needed to be to mitigate them. Exhaustive and rigorous policies were quickly drafted as pre-emptive antidotes to the chaos that threatened from the side-lines.

International education in particular presented challenges. In the academic year 2020/21, the majority of our students remained in their home countries and studied remotely. Those in the UK were subject to frequent lockdowns and had to isolate in their student accommodation. Scheduling classes for students in time zones eight hours ahead of the UK was very time-consuming, and global political issues affected students’ well-being as much as it did their internet connections. Despite this, moving out of emergency measures into a more robust delivery and assessment model was an opportunity to think more compassionately and flexibly.  

As we approached the middle of the pandemic, an interesting shift occurred. Trying to mimic face-to-face exams was slowly replaced with reconceiving assessments altogether. We worked with our university partners to transform traditional paper exams into digital open-book submissions or making some modules coursework-only. The benefits this yielded were two-fold; not only could exams be taken from anywhere in the world, but our understanding of assessment had broadened. Traditional notions of rigour and quality were married with newer, more flexible techniques, such as offering a week-long window to complete mock exams online. Consequently, a realisation that “back to normal” might not mean “back to the way we did it before” began to dawn. Many of the changes made to our assessment strategy had been so successful that returning to previous policies seemed regressive.

It is undeniable that the future of teaching and assessment is permanently altered. Paper exams have been rendered largely obsolete, to the benefit of the environment and our photocopying budgets. Assessments have become more flexible, more inclusive, and more representative of student ability. Importantly, our anxieties about changes are fading as we see our field emerge positively from this punishing time. Perhaps the most precious outcome of all is that now staff and students alike have much to look forward to. 

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