Adam Rosser

ACSME Panel: What is the future of assessment?

Adam Rosser Pic

Dr Adam Rosser

The University of New England

Distance education has long been a strength of the University of New England, so when the COVID pandemic arrived in Australia, Chemistry at UNE was relatively well placed to transition to a fully online mode of delivery.  Prior to the pandemic, approximately 75% of our chemistry students were already enrolled in an online capacity.  While our departmental experience in online and distance education was invaluable throughout 2020/21, we inevitably ran into the same tough questions as everyone else: how do we deliver a meaningful remote laboratory experience and how do examinations fit into the ‘new normal’? 

Through 2020, I was the unit coordinator and lecturer for three foundation units in the sciences, Fundamentals of Forensic Science, Science in Practice, and Introductory Chemistry.  Fortunately for me, none of these units had a laboratory component to manage and each of these units had employed supervised online exams (an option for students requiring more flexibility), with students encountering few, mostly technical, problems.  At the beginning of 2020, I was a proponent of online supervised exams.

Our students in these units are academically inexperienced, are often entering university via an alternative pathway, and a large of proportion are in the low-SES demographic.  When online exams became the default mode of examination in 2020, many issues I hadn’t seen when these exams were optional became apparent (e.g., low digital literacy, technical and social inequalities, and privacy concerns).  On top of the stresses induced by a global pandemic, online supervised exams were a step too far for many students, academically and emotionally.  By the end of 2020, I was left questioning my entire outlook on assessments. 

Personally, this experience inspired me to dive into the sphere of the scholarship of teaching and learning.  With regards to this panel, I’ve moved from ‘for’ examinations in most situations, to questioning their value in units that aren’t central to an accredited degree.  Looking at my unit Science in Practice, the final exam was introduced in to the unit because we had no other identity-verified assessments, we wanted to prepare students for future exams, and we hoped that the students would take the content more seriously.  Inevitably, each trimester, students who performed well in the assessment proportion of the unit become unstuck in the final exam – not because of their understanding of the content, but because the pressure of an exam was too much, particularly when being watched by a stranger on a webcam.

This year, we are trialling a video presentation assessment task as an alternative to the online supervised exam – students can choose their preferred assessment.  In this way, we can maintain an identity-verified assessment, but without the pressure of an exam.  Interestingly, though, very few students have taken that option, but those that have successfully completed the assessment and demonstrated their understanding of learning outcomes.  For 2022, we’ve restructured the assessment component of the unit, rebalancing the weighting of assessments, and removing the final examination in favour of the video presentation assessment task, at a lower weighting. This isn’t a magic bullet and issues of digital literacy and technical inequalities will remain, but with scaffolding and academic and technical support, we hope to bridge these gaps.  What remains to be seen is whether we can incorporate this type of assessment as part of our assessment toolkit in our other foundational units, without compromising academic integrity or student outcomes.