What do university students think of their assessments?

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The effectiveness of assessments can be ameliorated by focussing on the students’ need for timely support in the form of consistent preparation and clear feedback. 

The role of assessments

Assessments are an integral part of the academic programme, serving as an indicator of whether the learning outcomes are achieved, and to generate grades. Carless (2009) warns that such functions should not overshadow their role in motivating student learning. This understanding fits well with the contemporary enhanced focus on student experience. The centrality of assessments is highlighted by Gibbs (2006) who asserts that “assessments frame learning, create learning activity and orients all aspects of learning behaviour” (p.23).

The students’ perspective

Siobhan and I regularly design and implement assessments as part of our teaching responsibilities. We realise that there is potentially a gap between lecturers’ and students’ understanding of the role of assessments and their effectiveness. Indeed, very little research has been carried out to examine the students’ experience of assessments (Hernandez, 2012). However, developing an understanding of students’ perceptions and experience of assessments allows for better design by teaching staff (Fletcher et al., 2012). Hence we conducted three focus groups with 23 Psychology undergraduate students, aimed at informing our practice. The participating students were invited to share, discuss and explore different types of assignments amongst their group.

Participants indicated that both teaching and student factors influenced their learning from assessments. The identified teaching factors included the:

  1. Type of support – Students emphasise the need for consistency amongst different lecturers and tutors in the kind of support and the level of preparation, stating that it needs to be balanced: too little support causes feelings of abandonment while excess reduces academic independence in learning. The relationship between the student and the tutor is crucial in this regard.
  2. Timing of assessment – Students recognise that the skills developed on one assessment serve well and are built upon through subsequent assessments. Such scaffolding in their learning provides a knock-on effect to their learning as one assessment influences the next. Students seek cues on the content and format of the assessment as clarity about the set task and its aims affect their preparation.  Predictability reduces stress levels, allowing them to perform better.
  3. Student-focused approach in assessment design Students’ engagement depends on whether they consider the set assignment to be relevant to their learning and future career. One participant commented, “it felt real, somehow, and actually seeing how that skill was gonna be advantageous later”.  They appreciate the element of choice, both in coursework and in exam questions.  It provides them with a sense of control on their focus of study in preparation for their assessment.  Moreover, they value tasks which give scope for their personal creativity, for instance, a poster presentation.

On the other hand, the student factors that were brought up centred around:

  1. Academic Maturity – This concept refers to the students’ capacity for self-evaluation in recognising their strengths and weaknesses, their preferred learning style and what drives their motivation. Such maturity can be developed through a balanced and supportive tutor relationship.
  2. Emotions – Assessments can bring about negative emotions such as fear and anxiety which hinder performance. Students believe that these emotions are brought about by low predictability (e.g. unseen exams) and a perception of inadequate academic support. This emotional outcome can be reduced through more application of the teaching factors mentioned above. Moreover, if the identified teaching factors are practiced, students experience positive emotions such as excitement and satisfaction about their work: “that’s why you’re so proud though, because it was so hard and we all did so well”.

Recommendations from this research

Clearly, this outcome has implications for course and module leaders, exam and timetabling administrators and student support services. The development of assessment for individual modules must prioritise and integrate the students’ understanding of the learning process at a holistic programme level. In this manner, the timing and type of assessment should allow for the sequential scaffolding of various academic skills’ enhancement across the different elements within the programme. Consequently the timing and type of support, in the form of preparation and feedback, needs to tailored accordingly. Appropriate guidance by academic staff reduces negative emotions amongst students, and instils a positive learning attitude fuelled by their achievements. The desired outcome is the promotion of academic maturity and the reduction of stress leading to a more constructive approach to independent learning. Essentially, we need to keep checking with our students as to what they think works best for them.


Carless, D. (2009). Trust, distrust, and their impact on assessment reform. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 34, 79-89.

Fletcher, R., Meyer, L., Anderson, H., Johnston, P. & Rees, M. (2012). Faculty and Students’ Conceptions of Assessment in Higher Education. Higher Education, 64, 119-133.

Gibbs, G. (2006b). How assessment frames student learning. In C Bryan & K Clegg (Eds.), Innovative Assessments in Higher education (pp. 23-36). Oxfordshire: Routledge.

Hernandez, R. (2012). Does continuous assessment in higher education support student learning? Higher Education, 64, 489-502.

Authors: Moira Cachia is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Siobhan Lynam is Lecturer in Psychology at the University of West London



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