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Esme Cavendish is the current Undergraduate Access, Education and Participation Officer for the Cambridge Students' Union. She studied her BA in English at Christ's College, graduating in July 2020. In this article, Esme discusses what we can learn from the 2020 examination period.


Diversifying assessment to the benefit of all

Universities have had to make some extremely rapid adjustments to deal with the Covid-19 crisis, particularly when it comes to forms of assessment. I was one of the many students who completed their finals online at home this year. Whilst there's no denying the chaos the virus has caused, it has also prompted some important reflections about the format and nature of examinations. There's been reluctance to take the risks posed by diversifying assessment up till this point, but now that we've dipped our toes in the water, there may be no going back. What have we learnt, and what can we take forward?

It's worth clarifying first what 'diversifying assessment' means. Diversified assessment refers to a movement away from using traditional exams as the primary mode of assessment, and towards a system which uses an assortment of different kinds of assessment tasks: examples might include oral exams, presentations and coursework-style assignments. It can also refer to changes in exam tasks and format.

So far, conversations about diversified assessment have largely focused on how the current exam system structurally disadvantages disabled students. This is of course crucially important, but I'd like to complement this angle by exploring the potential for diversified assessment to universally benefit all students.

A recent student report on research conducted amongst those students registered with the Disability Resource Centre highlighted the case for diversified assessment not only on the grounds that this would level the playing field, but also that different forms of assessment can better equip students with useful and sustainable skills such as they might need to excel in careers beyond university. Respondents spoke of a desire for forms of assessment that test - and indeed develop - more employable skills; aspiring barristers, for example, might benefit from oral examinations or assessed presentations. Our current system is not designed to nurture those skills which will best serve students in life beyond academic study.


Reactions to the 2020 exam modifications

Interestingly, this sentiment was echoed in responses to a survey circulated in the Department of Law this year, after the 'normal' 3-hour exams were replaced with 24-hour online 'takeaway' papers. Of the 229 respondents, 86.5% indicated that they either liked or strongly liked the open-book format. A similarly high majority of staff members agreed: one expressed that they thought the open-book exam was preferable to the 'wholesale memorisation' needed for a closed-book exam, a skill which they noted would not be useful in a professional context. The process of understanding and application is the key skill the exam is intended to assess, rather than the ability to commit information to memory in a short time-frame, and likely for a short period of time. There is no need to assess the former in a way which overly rewards the latter.

Law is by no means the only culprit however; cramming is generally the technique required to excel in the current assessment system, which arguably does not encourage meaningful engagement with the subject and its content.

The alterations made by the Department of Modern & Medieval Languages to their translation paper last summer offer another good example of beneficial change. Normally the exam is closed-book, and students are tested on their knowledge of very specific and randomly-chosen words from the translation passage. When the exam was moved online it was inevitable that students would simply use dictionaries, and so they were instead asked to write a commentary about words or phrases from the passage which had made their translation difficult. This was described afterwards as a much more 'academically enriching' experience, because it invited students to engage critically with and reflect on the process of translation, rather than merely testing whether or not they happen to know the word for "peach tree" in Portuguese.


Alternatives to the traditional exam

Moving on from the format of the exam, we should further consider: are exams really the best way to assess students' ability anyway? A 3-hour exam is a tiny window of time in which to demonstrate the whole extent of your knowledge and skills, developed over the years of your degree study. Further, weighting these few hours of the year so disproportionately can have extremely adverse impacts on students. I'm not (just) talking about the mental health impact of that kind of pressure, but about the potential for external factors or last-minute disasters to impact exam performance in a way which simply can't be wholly mitigated by DDH (Declared to have Deserved Honours) or exceptions for extenuating circumstances. In contrast, a variety of assessment types spread out across the year would avoid this situation almost entirely, giving all students much more opportunity to do justice to their abilities. Coursework-style assessment allows for more extensive work and consideration - and isn't this the form that academia takes after all?

But, how much appetite is there for different assessment approaches amongst the student body? This is an interesting question, particularly so as students at Cambridge are here largely as a result of their ability to perform exceptionally well in exams. Students who don't get on well with exams defy many odds to get here in the first place. In some ways, it's difficult to assess the scale of support. For example, there were a lot of disgruntled Physics students when vivas were introduced recently, although this upset was at least in part in reaction to the lack of advance warning.

However, in the report mentioned earlier on students registered with the Disability Resource Centre, some respondents specifically commented that, whilst traditional exams benefitted them personally, they recognised that diversified assessment would help others. Perhaps we are making a mistake in assuming that there needs to be one 'right' way of assessing anything. Introducing diversified forms of assessment shouldn't mean the imposition of a new one-size-fits-all model: it's about moving away from that approach entirely, because we have enough experience to know that it doesn't work.


A model of diversity

Some courses already have a hint of a diversified model. In English, for example, you submit a portfolio and a mini-dissertation for Part I alongside your traditional exams. I was relieved earlier in the summer when my final exam papers were substituted for essay 'dossiers', as this gave me the chance to submit essays that I'd worked hard on and was proud of: for me this seemed preferable to frantically dashing off arguments in a timed exam sat at home in the middle of a pandemic. But you already have the option in Part II English to substitute one exam paper for a second dissertation. Students are thus given the opportunity to choose which mode of assessment best suits their needs and abilities. Expanding on this model could be the future: a system which offers different routes of assessment could benefit everyone.


Cambridge Teaching & Learning Newsletter vol. 2 (issue 2) March 2021

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