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Traditional modes of assessment such as essays and timed invigilated examinations still have their place in the modern university and students benefit from them. However, as the differential outcomes or awarding gaps are determined by the allocation of classes to individual students according to their assessed academic performance, it is understood that the correlation between a programme’s assessment practices and the award of a first class or good honours degree outcomes demands closer attention (Re-imagining assessment for all, RAFA2 2020).


Diversifying assessment

At Cambridge, Education Services have concluded that taking steps to diversify assessment is a vital to narrow or eliminate these awarding gaps (Future of Assessment paper to the Examinations & Assessment Committee, November 2020), understanding that this is one just initiative in what will be a range of approaches on awarding gaps, including those related to inclusive teaching and curricula, accessible learning environments, academic skills development and student wellbeing, transition to the university and sense of belonging.

There is considerable evidence in the sector that high-stakes summative exams disadvantage some students, who do not perform to their best ability. High-stakes summative, timed assessment setting create a pressured assessment environment; generally however, the learning outcomes of tCambridge’s programmes do not require students to demonstrate knowledge or skills under pressure. This means that we can allow for more variety and choice in how we let students demonstrate they meet the learning outcomes through diversified assessment types, and which will help eliminate awarding gaps.

Diversified assessment moves away from a reliance on exam-based assessment and instead focus on summative assessment practices that provide staff with an opportunity for innovation in the design and development of assessments and provide students with opportunities for discipline-specific or authentic ‘real world’ tasks to demonstrate their learning and development of a range of skills relevant to their discipline and future work.


Inclusive assessment

An inclusive approach to assessment is crucial for student engagement and success (Cureton & Gravestock, 2018, p.58). The principle underpinning an inclusive curriculum, including assessment, is that it provides an accessible, engaging and relevant learning experience for all students, maximising retention and progression, while reflecting the needs of particular groups (Bloxham & Boyd, 2007, p. 139). Inclusive assessment incorporates diversity and flexibility in the overall assessment experiences, supported by special provisions where these are deemed appropriate and fair. It is therefore more practicable than an approach which caters specifically to individual differences through case-by-case adjustments to assessment conditions. It reduces the likelihood of certain groups or individuals being overlooked, stereotyped or perceived as ‘problem’ students and that responses to the awarding gap be framed around a ‘deficit’ approach.

Inclusive assessment does not mean lowering academic standards. As long as the learning outcomes can be achieved through equivalent means, inclusive assessment is a mechanism for safeguarding standards while maximising the possibility of success for all students. For instance, a key recommendation from Re-imagining Attainment for All (RAFA 2, 2020) is to provide greater transparency in the process of assessment and the communication of high expectations to all students; that is, a focus on ‘assessment literacy’. Assessment literacy means having a sound knowledge of the connection between assessment and learning, the expectations of particular methods of assessment, and an understanding about how they will be evaluated (Price et al 2012). This is helpful for students as it enables them to progress in their learning by making the most of formative feedback and how they are progressing, and it is helpful for staff as it builds a shared 3 understanding of assessment mapped across the programme. Cousin and Cureton (2012) observed that good assignment briefs increase assessment literacy for both staff and students, reduce student anxiety, and raise students’ confidence in their ability to achieve and, crucially, impact on their attainment.


For more on the connection between assessment and awarding gaps, please see this Paper to the Examination & Assessment Committee (March 2021).


Next: The deficit approach