Around the world, the way students are assessed and evaluated is becoming key to define institutional success. With the ubiquity of technology, it’s easy to think that learners could and should be assessed on a continuous basis during their entire academic journey and not only evaluated at key moments such as official end of course testing. Is this viable? Or does it create an unnecessary burden on both students and teachers?

It is important to consider the difference between assessment and evaluation. As Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross wrote in their “Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers”

  • Assessment focuses on learning, teaching and outcomes. It provides information for improving learning and teaching. Assessment is an interactive process between students and faculty that informs faculty how well their students are learning what they are teaching. The information is used by faculty to make changes in the learning environment, and is shared with students to assist them in improving their learning and study habits. This information is learner-centered, course based, frequently anonymous, and not graded.
  • Evaluation focuses on grades and may reflect classroom components other than course content and mastery level. These could include discussion, cooperation, attendance and verbal ability.

It is easy to see how the two components are simply two sides of the same coin. Evaluation should be seen as the moment when teachers establish what their students have learnt, while assessment should be seen as a way to understand how they are learning (and how instructors are teaching).

With the traditional pen and paper methods, it is hard to deliver meaningful feedback to students, as teachers would need to spend most of their time deciphering poor handwriting, checking grids of multiple choice questions and, with classrooms of hundreds of students, they would have little chance to record the progress of a single student.

This is where technology comes in to help. Students could complete a digital diagnostic test at the beginning of a course to establish how confident they are with the subject, to detect if there’s any foundational topic that needs to be reviewed ahead of the course and if there are any students who might present some “weaknesses”.  In itself, such a diagnostic test delivers immediate benefits to students as well as longer-term benefits to teachers who could assess how well student learning is progressing and how teaching might need to be adapted.

How to conduct assessments? Again, technology is vital. By completing their assignments on a digital platform, students can expect quicker, better feedback and on a continuous basis. Also, student use of the VLE can be a source of valuable insights into how they are learning. As Richard Burrows wrote in his “Using Learning Analytics for Student Success” blog post a couple of month ago, “Learning Analytics can help identify the students who are most likely to need support and do so early enough in their studies that interventions can have maximum benefit.”

Finally, after the completion of the course, students will receive their grades, but also, they will be able to know how much they have progressed, what has worked, what hasn’t and if and how they need to change their studying styles to be successful in other courses and in their academic career.

More and more universities are investing in digital assessments and evaluation programmes, like the University of Groningen that aims to deliver 80% of assessments in digital mode by 2020.

From their experience it is clear that this approach requires accurate planning beforehand and that support to students and teachers along the way is critical. But the advantages and benefits of digital assessment have been proven. As University of Groningen highlighted in their workshop at the Teaching and Learning Conference 2016” “running examinations up to 15 hours a day, 6 days per week can save academics 6,600 academic marking hours.”

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