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The role and purpose of assessment

This resource forms part of a set of resources written by Karen Clegg (Graduate Training Unit, University of York) which are designed to help law teachers to adapt and improve their assessment practice.

Here, Karen looks at the role and purpose of assessment. See related pages in the toolbar on the right to view Karen’s other assessment resources. Links to examples and tools for use in the classroom are included, as well as prompt questions to help you think about how to use the case examples in your own teaching.

We assess for a number of different purposes – to distinguish between a cohort of students, to aid recruitment and selection, to assure ourselves that the learning outcomes of the programme have been met, and of course to improve student learning. (For more detail on different types of assessment see Effective assessment strategies in law.)

What is clear from all the literature and our own experience as law teachers is that it makes sense to choose an assessment tool that supports your aim and learning outcomes. For example, if you want to find out how much a student knows about employment law at the end of first year, a multiple choice questionnaire that results in a grade is appropriate, because it can help the student and tutor recognise gaps in learning. This would be an example of summative assessment, or as it is often referred to, ‘high stakes’ assessment. However, if you want to help the student to learn and to be able to do better next time, the student will need feedback on what s/he can improve.

Two other distinctions that it might be helpful to identify are:

  1. Diagnostic assessment – an indicator of a learner’s aptitude and preparedness for a programme of study, identifies possible learning problems. You might use this at the start of a programme or module and repeat again midway through or at the end, so as to illustrate the development made by the student.
  2. Ipsative assessment – provides information on an individual’s present performance compared with previous (ie their personal best). You might use this as an incentive for students to improve on their last performance without necessarily promoting competition amongst students to better each other.

The way we mark assessments should also reflect the purpose of assessments. Increasingly students who have come through the UK education system have only ever experienced what we call norm referencing, or marking to the curve. The advantages of this approach are that it:

  • enables comparison between cohorts of students to be made (also year after year)
  • incites competition for grades

In this way it supports the aims of recruitment and selection.

The disadvantages are that:

  • achievement is relative to the cohort
  • it incites competition for grades
  • improvement in learning and teaching isn’t reflected in the outcome

It is perhaps also worth noting that competition can be seen as both a pro and a con of assessment. Law students who intend to pursue a career as a practitioner are already aware of the competition amongst students for placements and job opportunities; as such you as a law teacher may feel it is appropriate that they feel some of the pressure of competition during their assessments. Indeed you might want to consider whether the development and assessment of non-cognitive skills such as resilience, self discipline and motivation should also be factored into your programme design.

By comparison criterion referencing (or marking to a standard) enables:

  • achievement to be measured against a benchmark or standard
  • individual achievement can be measured (and compared)

The main advantage of criterion referenced assessment is that it lends itself well to providing meaningful formative feedback. The main disadvantage is that, because of the need to fulfil the functions of educational enhancement and quality assurance, there will still be some pressure to translate a grade generated through criterion referencing to a cohort.

Prompt questions when designing assessment

  • Learning outcomes – what do you as a teacher expect of the work submitted? How can you illustrate to students what you expect of them?
  • Level – should undergraduate students be operating at a different level in year one to year three?
  • How can you illustrate to students what you expect of them?

Dunbar-Goddet and Gibbs (2007) study of assessment environments concluded: “Students experience was negative in most respects when there was a high volume of summative assessment…and little formative only assessment or oral feedback”. In other words, for assessment to serve both accountability and student learning several conditions need to be satisfied:

  • there needs to be a good balance and range of assessment types in operation
  • the assessment should be fit for purpose and reflect the learning outcomes
  • formative feedback should be provided and given either verbally or in writing


Assessment Ladder

If you want to help your students understand and recognise feedback you might want to consider using an exercise developed by the Assessment for Learning CETL at the University of Northumbria (UNN). This exercise is designed to stimulate conversation around the general process of assessment. It has been used at UNN with both groups of staff and groups of students. Indeed, comparisons of the outcomes from the two different groups can result in some interesting findings. The group sizes can vary, but between six to ten per Assessment Ladder is the ideal.

You might not want to use the exercise in its full form. It works equally well just to transpose the statements to card or laminate and get students or colleagues to place them on a scale. If you are conducting it with students, the results aren’t as important as the process or the discussion that ranking the statements reveals. If you want to use it with colleagues to help redesign a module or programme, you may want to minute the discussion and the results, which will provide a framework for you to work from.

Assessment Ladder including full instructions

Assessment Experience Questionnaire (AEQ)

The Assessment Experience Questionnaire (AEQ) has been in use for some time. Developed by Graham Gibbs, it asks students to rate themselves on a scale indicating how they use feedback. Used as part of a module it can be helpful to teachers who want to find out what students think about assessment, what they do with feedback, and where the gaps are in the provision of feedback.

As a tool to enhance the quality of student learning it is very effective. For best effects use it at the start of a module or programme and then repeat it halfway through to monitor whether students’ behaviour and use of feedback have changed.

The Assessment Experience Questionnaire and accompanying scoring sheet can be downloaded below.

Promoting formative assessment

Designing student learning by promoting formative assessment is a paper outlining empirical work done at the University of Brighton exploring how law students value feedback.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010