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18 February 2021

Learning from the remote pivot - approaches to aligning learning outcomes to assessment for student success


Professor Elizabeth Cleaver
Independent HE Consultant

Professor Mike McLinden
Emeritus Professor, School of Education, University of Birmingham

Grade inflation was described in the first WonkHE Mondays briefing of February 2021 as ‘one of the contemporary folk devils of education policy’. This took one of the authors – Liz – back to her own student days in the 1980s, when Stanley Cohen’s ‘Folks Devils and Moral Panics’ was the text of choice on many sociology and criminology courses. Returning to the text (for the first time in almost 30 years) she was interested to note how Cohen documented the creation of folk devil status. He argues that localised, small scale and compartmentalised activities and actions that can normally be ignored, kept in their rightful place or dealt with locally become the basis for folk devil status, and lead to public condemnation, if they become seen as political, visible and threatening.

We can certainly see many parallels here with the current turn of events in higher education assessment and ongoing arguments about grade inflation. In an OfS press release at the end of January 2021, Chief Executive Officer Nicola Dandridge stressed the importance of maintaining ‘confidence in the value of a degree’, reminding the sector that ‘temporary changes in response to the pandemic should not bake in further grade inflation’. As this reminder suggests, while the folk devil may be held at bay for now it has not disappeared entirely, and if grade inflation were to become seen as political, visible and threatening (to use Cohen’s terminology) then action may need to be taken.

The importance of outcomes-based education

What should not be forgotten is the significant work that has been undertaken by colleagues across the sector, to assure the quality of higher education and the maintenance of degree standards during the pandemic year.  At the core of much of this activity is a commitment to outcomes-based education, influenced particularly by the work of John Biggs and Catherine Tang on ‘constructive alignment’ -  a process where teaching activities and assessment approaches are connected by a clear and upfront articulation of what students should learn (intended learning outcomes), and how they should express their learning (assessment criteria). Teaching can then be designed to ensure that learning activities enable students to work towards achieving these outcomes, with assessment tasks designed in ways that ensure students know what is expected of them, and assessors can make clear comparable judgements as to the extent to which outcomes have been met.

In our careers in educational and academic development we have encountered arguments that this approach dumbs-down education and spoon-feeds students - telling them both what to do and how to answer. But our experience of using it shows quite the opposite - with students finding individual and scholarly solutions to problems, rather than simply recalling fixed facts and replicating known answers. It also provides a fair and consistent framework of expectation and practice in which students have opportunities to develop the skills of critical thinking and analysis - some of the most important outcomes from higher education.

None of us wish to return to earlier forms of higher education where the learning environment was much more ‘sink or swim’. We can both remember a time when the only way to identify the kind of questioning used by a tutor and to hazard a guess as to what might appear in an exam was to seek out past exam papers in the university library. Or the negative feedback received when the wrong kind of referencing techniques (Harvard, not footnotes) were used, even though tutors had not articulated why different techniques were important, let alone that this would affect the grade.

As we encountered the first lockdown in March 2020, we and our colleagues were challenged like never before. Many academic teams moved actively and swiftly to re-imagine assessments for an online environment, and to assure their respective institutions of the ‘quality’ of their decision-making. This is where, for many, the importance and value of an outcomes-based approach came to the fore, as learning outcomes formed a key mechanism by which institutions ensured that alternative assessments were of high quality and that standards continued to be met.

Grade inflation or high-quality outcomes?

With each higher education provider often an independent awarding body in its own right, the process and practice behind the ‘pivot’ to remote learning and assessment has been varied, reflecting the importance placed on local and contextual relevance and resonance. This variety of approaches may have appeared quite complex to those less versed in higher education practices, sitting in stark contrast to the sector-wide, government-led responses to the award of GCSEs and A-Levels in each of the devolved nations. Perhaps it is this that has contributed to the sense and language of uncertainty in regulatory and governmental circles, and the reminder that ongoing activities ‘should not bake in further grade inflation’ and undermine the value of UK degrees.

To bring the excellent work that has taken place to light, we have partnered with QAA to identify ways that HE providers have worked during the pandemic to create ‘constructively aligned’ alternative assessment approaches, leading to positive and high-quality student outcomes. And with increasing recognition in the sector that the pandemic has accelerated changes in teaching and assessment that would have be unimaginable before, we are also keen to find out which of these new practices will continue as part of the new ‘normal’.

We are keen to hear about your own work to build high quality outcomes. Please take a look at our short questionnaire and tell us about the work you have undertaken over the lockdown year. We look forward to hearing from you.