Challenges faced when using enquiry-based learning – Assessment

Addressing assessment-related difficulties when using enquiry-based learning

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Peter Kahn
21 October 2009

•    Standard examination formats do not fit with the processes employed in enquiry-based learning.

Response 1 – Adapt the format of the examination paper

One can adapt the format of an examination paper to ensure it provides an appropriate assessment of the intended learning outcomes.  
a)    If student learning is based around a scenario, as in problem-based learning, then examination questions can reflect this as well, with question(s) following the statement of a scenario.
b)    If student learning involves collation of information from a range of sources, then a select number of sources could be provided for use during the examination. An open book examination provides another variation on this theme.  
c)    Questions can require students to provide an answer that is illustrated by a specific piece of research they have recently carried out.  
d)    Some of the examination questions can be released a certain time in advance so that students have time to complete further research, with unseen follow-on questions requiring further analysis.

Response 2 – Employ alternative assessment formats

Enquiry-based learning is well suited to assessment by coursework, as an enquiry typically results in specific outputs (whether reports, papers, artefacts, performances, etc).
Possible alternative forms of assessment include online assessment, group assessment, patchwork texts, portfolios, personal accounts, presentations, posters and reports.  
You will need to check your own institutional regulations, as the restrictions on the proportion of the assessment for a module that may be completed through coursework are often more reasonable than is sometimes believed in an institution. But colleagues may need convincing that the assessment remains suitably demanding or that you have included controls to ensure that the work is the student’s own.

•    It may be difficult or undesirable to assign a grade to student work, but it remains important that students fully complete the task(s) entailed.

Response – Employ course or attendance requirements.

A ‘course requirement’ is a condition that a student must meet in order to pass an assignment or module, or to be eligible to take an assessment. Typically a student would be required to complete a piece of coursework or to participate in a process, but the coursework would not formally assigned a grade/percentage.  In general, assessment should provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate the achievement of the learning outcomes being assessed, at relevant levels.  Course requirements should thus be clearly linked to the intended learning outcomes on the module. There is certainly greater scope for institutions to develop formal guidance on the use of course requirements.

Course requirements should ideally be linked to assessment that is graded, whether as an appendix that must be cited, as text to be integrated into a graded piece of work, or in preparing students to complete a further task or answer an examination question. In such cases it may be possible to incorporate the course requirement into the assessment criteria for the subsequent piece of work. This essentially involves the staging of summative assessment.

•    Existing assessment criteria may not adequately take into account the range of student work completed.

Response 1 – Employ assessment criteria that take into account the varying demands faced by students

Authentic settings usually introduce a range of factors that make the tasks involved more demanding for students, but students should not be disadvantaged in assessment because of the particular circumstances they had to face. Adapt the criteria to allow scope for different underlying tasks, whether grading how well students have responded to the unpredictable demands of the authentic setting or the initiative that they were able to show in a more standard setting where few additional demands were present. One example assessment criteria is as follows, although grade descriptors are also be desirable:

•    Either (a) Responded appropriately to challenges that emerged within the research setting, or (b) Exercised initiative in extending the scope of the specified task.

Response 2 – Employ different sets of assessment criteria

It may be challenging to assess both desk-based research (e.g. a literature review) and processes set in an authentic professional setting with the same assessment criteria. Consider devising different sets of assessment criteria for the main settings. Where different assessment criteria are employed one might reasonably argue that different assessment methods are in use, and this might ensure issues of fairness are raised. But ideally one should be able to show that such variation is genuinely required to ensure that all the learning outcomes of the module may be demonstrated.

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