Testing Understanding in Education

Louise Wells.

Assessment plays a key role in shaping the time we spend in education in the UK.  It begins at the age of two or three, where we are assessed by a health visitor or early years practitioner [1].  It then continues throughout primary and secondary school, where progress is often measured by regular homework as well as in other ways over a longer time scale [2].  If we chose to continue to higher education, assessment remains one of the main focuses.

There are two main types of assessment: formative and summative.  Formative assessment is designed to monitor a student’s progress and give them guidance on how to improve their work.  This may take the form of an essay plan or a problem sheet.  Summative assessment is used to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit by comparison to some form of bench mark.  This often takes the form of an exam or paper for which a final grade is given.  Summative assessment is often high stakes, meaning that the results of the assessment may shape a student’s future [3].

From the age of 16 onwards, assessment in the UK is generally summative, high stake and in the form of written exam papers.  At 16, students sit their GCSE exams and the outcome of these dictates whether they can take their chosen A-level subjects.  Two years later, students take their A-levels.  The predicted outcome of these exams forms part of the basis on which universities make offers, and the actual results will decide if and where a student will attend university.  Once at university, students taking STEM subjects usually sit biannual exams which have an impact on their overall degree classification and ultimately what they will do after graduation.

With so much depending on how well a student is able to perform in exams, it is important to consider if they are truly the best method of assessing and classifying a student’s ability.  In order to do this, one must consider the motivation behind the assessment and what exactly it is measuring [4].  Is the exam looking to find out how much students remember or how well they can apply what they have been taught to different situations?  What is best way of testing how well a student has understood a topic?  In addition, the reliability (or objectivity) and the transparency of the assessment must also be taken into account.

Assessing Physics Undergraduates

For Physics undergraduates, the majority of their overall degree result is based on how they do in exams sat in the second year and onwards.  Aside from experimental and computing work, everything is assessed via an exam at the end of the module.  For students doing a BSc in Physics at the University of Nottingham, this means that at least two thirds of their final grade comes from performance in exams.  This fraction will be higher for students taking Theoretical Physics or students who have not chosen to take computing based modules [5].  Heavy reliance on exams means degree classification is based on students answering the same questions under the same conditions as their peers.  This ensures that no single student has an advantage because they had more help from older students or academics.  It also removes any chance of marking being subjective, as exams are graded based on a careful and thorough mark scheme.  However, a heavy reliance on exams to assess how much a student has learned over the three years leaves little to fall back on if students struggle with this form of assessment.

At the University of Nottingham, the School of Physics exams are all structured in the same way.  Students sit one paper per module in the examination period which falls at the end of the module teaching period.  They choose three questions out of five to answer and have of the order of 30 minutes to answer each question.  Each question is worth 25 marks.  Of those 25 marks, around 15 marks come from bookwork and previously seen examples.  Taking this to be the average across Physics exams, this means that 40% of the marks for a BSc in Physics from the University of Nottingham come from questions examining previously seen work. This favours students who have successfully memorise definitions, derivations and worked examples.  Learning parts of the lecture notes by rote means that earlier parts of questions can be completed more quickly, allowing for more time to be spent on unseen problems.  This then increases the likelihood of a student being able to successfully tackle the later parts of the question, which are typically more challenging.  The large proportion of bookwork also means that it is possible for students to get a good mark without fully processing what they have learned or actually understanding it.  I would argue that this is not a good way of assessing students.  It seems unfair that equally gifted students could get a lower mark simply due to forgetting something due to exam pressure.

Another Way?

There are many alternatives to exams that may be used to assess students in a summative manner.  Options include presentations, miniature projects, essays, articles or vivas.  As with exams, these all have both positive and negative connotations which must be considered.

One of the main advantages of alternative assessment methods is that they can be done continuously throughout the academic year.  Although this means that the students have frequent deadlines and are under more pressure earlier in the term, it also means that they have more incentive to work continuously rather than cramming for exams at the last minute.  Additionally, students are less likely to turn in a piece of work that is not representative of their ability as having a bad day due to illness or personal circumstances will have less of an impact on their work.  Unlike exams, these assessment methods also enable testing of students’ understanding at a deeper level.  Since students have access to books, papers and the internet whilst working on their assessment, it is possible to ask more challenging questions which require more thought and a deeper level of understanding.  In addition, structuring summative assessment in these ways means that students are experiencing a more “real world” approach.  This means they are learning transferrable skills, such as writing and presenting, which will help them when they leave the university bubble.

However, there are also some serious drawbacks with using summative assessments other than exams.  Since alternatives are often either written or aural, this makes the marking more subjective.  Although these styles of assessment are normally graded by more than one person and the marks then moderated, these is still room for bias and the background of the markers to impact results.  Written and aural work also puts pressure on students in a different way to exams.  Since many of them will not be used to presenting their work in these ways, they could lose marks due to nerves or poor writing skills even though they are confident with the material they are covering.  In addition, the questions are often more open to interpretation.  This means that, unless formative assessment is used in the build-up to the submission of the summative assessment, it is more possible for a student to misinterpret the brief than it would be in an exam.  As there is no “right answer” as there is with an exam, it is also harder for students to gain extremely high marks.

To conclude, there is no perfect way of testing understanding of Physics at university.  Heavily weighting overall grades toward performance in exams means that there is a tendency to assess students on how well they can exactly regurgitate information covered in lectures.  On the other hand, assessing students using other methods is more complicated and more subjective.  Assessment methods such as essays, presentations and miniature projects can lead to students not achieving their potential due to needing a wider range of skills and having to produce work of a higher calibre to attain the highest marks.  Overall, I think that basing so much of a student’s degree on exams in their current format is wrong.  I do, however, understand that moving completely away from this tradition method of assessment would pose many problems as it would be harder to assess students individually and would not be what prospective students or employers expect.  Therefore, I think that exams should stay in place, but with a lower weighting than they have currently. This would allow for the introduction of a variety of styles of assessment for each individual module.  This would give students more ways of demonstrating their capabilities, reduce the pressure on each individual assessment and give a more rounded view of each individual’s ability in their subject.


[1] Gov.uk. (2016). Early years foundation stage – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/early-years-foundation-stage [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].

[2] Gov.uk. (2016). The national curriculum – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/national-curriculum/overview [Accessed 14 Nov. 2016].

[3] University, C. (2016). Formative vs Summative Assessment-Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation – Carnegie Mellon University. [online] Cmu.edu. Available at: https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html [Accessed 15 Nov. 2016].

[4] Race, P. (2009). Designing assessment to improve physical sciences learning. 1st ed. Hull: Higher Education Academy.

[5] University of Nottingham, (2016). Physics and Astronomy Courses. [online] Available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/UGstudy/Courses/PhysicsandAstronomy/Physics-and-Astronomy.aspx [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016].




Testing Understanding in Education

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