A shift from Active Learning to Active Assessment


Sourced from the ever brilliant: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/8204963410/sizes/z/in/set-72157626965187420/

I think there is an important shift happening in higher education today.  Just as there was a shift from passive learning to actively learning, much inspired by Barr & Tagg’s (1995) seminal article From Teaching to Learning A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education, I believe there is a current shift happening from Active Learning to Active Assessment.

We have long known that assessment has an enormous impact on what, when and how students learn (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004), and that when assessment is explicitly aligned with the course learning objectives (also sometimes referred to as intended learning outcomes) that student learning experience AND the outcomes of those experiences are greatly improved (Lizzio, Wilson, & Simons, 2002).

Even the most thoughtful, dedicated teachers spend enormously more time worrying about their lectures than they do about their … assignments, which I think is a mistake.

(Wieman, 2007, p. 13)

Boud & Associates’ (2010) Seven Propositions for Assessment Reform in Higher Education provide an effective foundation for ensuring that assessment is implemented to enhance student learning throughout our course and program curricula.   I have presented a somewhat paraphrased summary of the principles below.

  1. Use assessment to engage students in productive learning:  align assessment tasks explicitly to what needs to be learned and to the activities that will lead to this learning; assessment tasks should be appropriately scaffolded to encourage progressive learning.
  2. Use feedback to actively improve student learning: provide clear, helpful feedback; provide specific and timely feedback such that students can continue to grow and improve. Nicol & Macfarlane‐Dick (2006) also provide an enlightening summary of the critical role that feedback plays in the assessment process.
  3. Students and teachers become partners in learning and assessment: students progressively take responsibility for their learning and develop their meta-cognitive abilities to enhance performance over time; students develop confidence in their ability to judge their work and that of others against criteria and standards; students and instructors actively dialogue and interact about assessment, and associated criteria and standards.
  4. Students are “inducted” into assessment practices and cultures in higher education: assessment practices are structured progressively to support student success and progressive learning throughout their curriculum; assessment practices are universally designed to respond to student diversity.
  5. Assessment is placed at the centre of program design: assessment is recognized clearly, as an integral part of curriculum design.  Assessment is integrated and embedded strategically, consistently, progressively and complementarity throughout the curriculum.  Assessment and feedback methods are directly aligned with program learning outcomes and teaching/learning activities that support the development of these learning outcomes.
  6. Assessment practices are a focus for instructional and institutional development: academic development activities are provided (and appropriately recognized and rewarded) to ensure that faculty, administrators and instructors develop the skills necessary to implement effective assessment practices in their courses and curricula.
  7. Assessment provides inclusive and clear evidence of student achievement: Opportunities are provided that allow students to demonstrate their coherent, enduring and integrated learning.  Documents that provide evidence of student learning provide a “richness” that is conducive to the integrated and complex nature of learning.

If there is one focus for improving our teaching and learning environments in higher education today, it should be on improving our collective ability to provide assessment practices that truly result in deep and sustained learning throughout our curricula.   The resulting impact on student learning experiences and the outcomes thereof would be simply extraordinary!  It will take a shift in our thinking of the critical role and impact that assessment has within our curriculum – but I truly believe that the time has come!


Barr, Robert B, & Tagg, John. (1995). From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(6), 12-26.

Boud, D. , & Associates. (2010). Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education. Sydney: Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Retrieved from http://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/teaching-and-learning/assessment/assessment-futures website:

Gibbs, Graham, & Simpson, Claire. (2004). Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1(1), 3-31.

Lizzio, Alf, Wilson, Keithia, & Simons, Roland. (2002). University Students’ Perceptions of the Learning Environment and Academic Outcomes: Implications for theory and practice. Studies in Higher Education, 27(1), 27-52.

Nicol, David J, & Macfarlane‐Dick, Debra. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Wieman, C. . (2007). Why Not Try a Scientific Approach to Science Education? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(5), 9-15.

  1. #1 by Paul T. Corrigan on June 9, 2013 - 9:02 pm

    I really appreciate much of your thinking here.

    Though I actually think that the word “assessment” has been poisoned beyond redemption, checking into whether we are accomplishing what we hope to accomplish should become a routine part of what we do and what we teach our students to do. And doing so “actively” makes all the sense in the world.

    However, here’s my main concern, which doesn’t necessarily challenge what you say but adds a qualifier: Most of us who teach college are not ready for meaningful assessment, active or passive. You begin your post by describing the move to “active assessment” as a step that comes (at least historically) after the move from the teaching to the learning paradigm. But most college teachers have not (yet?) made that shift.

    I think that pushing assessment before (as Mike Rose puts it) “helping professors become better teachers” is going to be or rather has already proven to be in most cases extremely counterproductive. If we are going to think of pedagogical faculty development sequentially, I think that meaningful assessment is an advanced skill, one that cannot be skipped ahead to. In my view, putting it first (in addition to putting it punitively and putting it as a mandate without adequate funding or support) has been the downfall of the assessment movement.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

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