Transforming the Experience of Students through Assessment

TESTA is a joint National Teaching Fellowship Project with four partner universities of similar character: Bath Spa, Chichester, Winchester and Worcester. It is funded by the Higher Education Academy for three years (2009-2012). TESTA aims to improve the quality of student learning through addressing programme-level assessment. TESTA is a £200,000 National Teaching Fellowship project on programme assessment, funded by the Higher Education Academy, led by the University of Winchester (2009-2012). TESTA originally conducted research on eight programmes in four partner universities to map assessment environments, develop interventions and evaluate them. The TESTA approach has been used with more than 100 programmes in over 40 UK universities, and in Australia, India and the USA. TESTA works with academics, students and managers - and for students, academics and managers – to identify study behaviour, generate assessment patterns to foster deeper learning across whole programmes, and debunk regulatory myths which prevent assessment for learning. 

  • Summary
  • Rationale
  • Activities
  • Outcomes

What is the central pedagogic problem TESTA addresses?

Assessment innovations at the individual module level often fail to address assessment problems at the programme-level, some of which, such as too much summative assessment and not enough formative assessment, are a direct consequence of module-focused course design and innovation. QAA course specification requirements (of outcomes and criteria) at the module level have not succeeded in clarifying for students the goals and standards they should be orienting their overall effort towards. There needs to be more consistency between modules, across programmes, and a greater emphasis on progressively developing students’ internalisation of programme-level standards, over time, rather than relying on documentation to specify criteria at the level of assignments or modules. Co-ordinated programme-wide assessment policy and practice is required to address both these issues.

How does TESTA address this problem?

TESTA maps programme-level data from eight programmes in four universities. This provides a rich picture of assessment - the quantity of assessment, balance of formative and summative, variety, distribution of assessment and its impact on student effort, feedback practices, the clarity of goals and standards, and the relationship between these factors and students’ overall perception of their degree. Using this baseline data, programme teams are devising targeted interventions to address specific programme-level assessment issues. Simultaneously, the project is deepening understanding of the relationship between quality assurance frameworks, and programme assessment changes through high-level strategic engagement with senior managers in each of the four institutions.
Assessment has a powerful influence on what students pay attention to, how much time and effort they put in, the quality of their engagement with their studies, their understanding of the goals and standards that their efforts are oriented towards, and how much they learn.

These assessment effects operate not just at course level, in relation to micro-level assessment tactics, but at programme level, in relation to overall assessment strategy. Some of these programme-level effects are the inevitable consequence of Quality Assurance regulations and procedures.

There are predictable patterns of relationships between features of programme level assessment and patterns of student learning. There are limitations to the extent to which individual teachers can solve assessment problems at course level: programme level solutions are usually necessary.

The crucial features of programme level assessment can be audited using the TESTA methodology so as to allow comparisons with other programmes and identify where there are potential problem areas.

The way students respond to programme-level assessment environments in their learning can be readily measured, using the Assessment Experience Questionnaire, and can be illuminated through the use of focus groups.

Teams of academics responsible collectively for the delivery of a programme find this triangulation of data (audit, AEQ and focus group) illuminating and convincing, and invariably use the data to inform extensive changes to assessment, at both programme and course level.

Senior Management responsible for Quality Assurance are also likely to be influenced by the evidence and to consider changes to the regulatory environment which frames assessment.

The impact of these changes can be measured by repeating the audit, administration of the AEQ and focus groups with a subsequent cohort of students who have experienced the changed assessment regime.

Provided the TESTA methodology is adhered to, data can be collated into a central data base that allows comparison of programme data between institutions and programmes, making interpretation easier and identifying common assessment patterns and their consequences across different contexts.

Research Activities

There are three main data collection activities within TESTA:

the Programme Assessment Audit which maps the student experience over a three year degree programme;

the Assessment Experience Questionnaire, which measures variables like the clarity of goals and standards, the quality and quantity of feedback, and student approaches to learning, and their overall satisfaction;

Focus Groups with students which provide a rich picture of student experience on the degree programme.

Pilot Interventions

These will be devised with programme teams as the research data is analysed and key issues emerge. Interventions may involve adjusting the balance between formative and summative assesment on a programme, or strategies for students to internalise criteria and standards "what is good?", or capstone modules which assess high-level learning outcomes across a series of interconnected modules, for example.

Researcher Network

The TESTA team will develop apprentice researchers who become skilled in gathering and analysing data, using qualitative and quantitative software, working in a research team, disseminating findings and other associated research tasks.

QA Strategic Work

The process of changing programme assessment regimes will involve devising strategies to fast track change without compromising quality, at departmental, faculty and university level. The TESTA project leaders and consultant will work with the PVC Senior Managers' Network to facilitate the exchange of ideas around assessment and QA arrangements. They will liaise with faculty members responsible for quality to ensure that piloting assessment change synergises with quality processes, and tests the boundaries of QA and change.

Case Studies and Consultancy

Our consultant, Professor Graham Gibbs, will provide consultancy support to four other institutions wanting to engage in similar change processes.

What are the anticipated outcomes of TESTA?

The research will deepen knowledge and understanding of assessment in eight programmes at four universities, which are similar in character.

It will add new insights to findings that different universities and programmes have distinctive assessment cultures, which imply that students exit university with fundamentally different experiences of their degree and its assessment.

Evidence-based assessment interventions will be piloted and evaluated on each programme, from the rich picture of assessment arising from the TESTA data, and through a process of consultation with programme teams.

Case studies of thechange process will be developed by the project leaders Tansy Jessop and Yaz El Hakim, in collaboration with programme and project leaders from each institution.

The TESTA bid provides for free consultancy support by Graham Gibbs to four universities wanting to engage in a similar process of change.

The project will clarify aspects of the relationship between quality assurance arrangements and improving the student experience through evidence informed change.