Adapting to changing times: farewell, continuous assessment?

In 1978 I sat the final examinations for my undergraduate degree at a certain Dublin college. I remember the exams well;  they took place in late September, as was the custom there at the time (and these were not repeats). I sat my final examination (in European law, if memory serves) on a Friday afternoon, and on the Monday following I was due to register as a PhD student in Cambridge. It was really quite a crazy system, and not long afterwards the same Dublin college moved its exams from September to June.

But actually, I digress. Back in September 1978, as I answered my final question – on the economic impact of the European Economic Community’s competition policy – I had done everything I needed to do to qualify for my BA honours degree, and all of it was through examination. Over the four years of study I had submitted goodness knows how many essays and other assignments, but none of these counted for my final results.

Two years later I was myself a lecturer, and it took several years in that role before I set the first assignment for students that would count towards their degree results. If I remember rightly it was in 1986. But in the years since then, most universities have radically changed their assessment methods, and continuous assessment (in the form of essays or projects or laboratory work) became the norm in most programmes, accounting for a significant proportion of  the final results. In some institutions (including at least one in Ireland) it is now common for all of the marks for particular modules to come from continuous assessment. All of this has grown out of a consensus amongst educationalists, or at least many of them, that such methods of monitoring learning are better, encourage more sophisticated analysis, require independent learning, promote motivation and so forth.

Having read some really wonderful essays and projects submitted by students under such programmes when I was still lecturing, I can see the point of such arguments. And yet, at least part of me has always been sceptical, and right now my scepticism is winning out.

There are two main reasons for my doubts. First, I fear that many lecturers are being overwhelmed by the assaults of plagiarism. It’s not that everyone plagiarises, but a significant minority of students do, and this requires a degree of vigilance and perceptiveness by lecturers that may place impossible demands on them. But secondly and more importantly, I believe we are about to realise that we simply don’t have the resources to run continuous assessment properly. Assignments that count for degree results are coming in all the time, and when they do the lecturer has to correct them with a high degree of conscientiousness, and when that task is done and results have been verified, has to provide feedback to the student that will serve as appropriate guidance. These are incredibly labour-intensive tasks. And they often come on top of the more traditional examining duties, now usually at two points of the year.

I don’t believe this is sustainable. As funding is reduced radically, we have to ask ourselves whether we really can go on managing a system that is not being resourced. I fear that, often, continuous assessment that is being conducted by an over-worked lecturer can be quite damaging, particularly if the main point (the feedback) is lost as the lecturer simply does not have the time to offer it. In the end we may have to accept that the time for such methods has passed and that we may need to give more prominence again to examinations, which have the additional benefit that they make plagiarism much more difficult.

Continuous assessment has been a worthwhile educational experiment. But I fear it is no longer sustainable.

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19 Comments on “Adapting to changing times: farewell, continuous assessment?”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Of course, when I was studying for my undergraduate degree my alma mater, then one of only two universities in England, conducted all its exams orally and exclusively in Mathematics. Why they changed this, I never understood.

    • Aoife, if your alma mater was when you were studying there “one of only two universities in England”, I calculate that this makes you at least 570 years old! It’s good to see you are still so sprightly! 🙂

  2. Wendymr Says:

    I agree that plagiarism makes continuous assessment difficult to deal with – though, ironically, in my final few years as an academic I found that plagiarism was becoming extremely quick and easy to detect and prove, as most plagiarising students had switched to copying from online sources. There were times when I could identify a source within 30 seconds.

    However, I would still argue that the benefits of using mixed assessments (continuous as well as examinations) outweigh the disadvantages. First, there are many students (myself included, back in the day) who always perform a grade or so worse in examinations than in written assignments. Assessing through examinations and essays/projects/presentations allows students to demonstrate their abilities in a range of media and doesn’t just reward those with the greatest ability to memorise and think quickly under pressure. Second, how will students be motivated to participate in class activities and submit essays if these count for nothing?

    If these types of measures, which will have a negative effect on the student educational experience, are adopted, then I think it would be important to state up-front that quality is declining, and has to decline, as a result of funding cuts. The higher education sector can’t carry on pretending that it’s possible to produce the same level of quality with ever-diminishing funds, and the ‘consumer’ must be made aware of this.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    The technology for detecting plagiarism is improving ‘though whether it stays one step ahead is another matter. Perhaps the strategy favoured for fare-dodgers on many local transport systems might work: random spot checks & serious penalties for offenders.
    In terms of the grind of marking continuous assessments, isn’t that why God made graduate students?

    • Sean Says:

      >> isn’t that why God made graduate students?

      A joke I know — but please let the PhD students write their theses and get out!

      I have personal experience of a small department where faculty perennially offloaded two thirds of undergraduate assessment onto grad students and assistants. While it allowed department/School heads to claim kudos for volumes of continuous assessment, combined with teaching it was detrimental to PhD progression.

      • Wendymr Says:

        Far from being a joke, it’s how graduate studies is funded in many higher education environments. In the UK, Graduate Teaching Assistantships have existed for many years, under which PhD students have their fees paid and receive a small stipend in return for a certain amount of class contact hours and marking. In North America, Masters and PhD students routinely become TAs, or Teaching Assistants, and similarly teach undergraduates and mark assignments.

        And, yes, where these kind of arrangements are used, coincidentally PhD completion time tends to be longer…

  4. Phil Race Says:

    I’m saddened to see this notion of retreating to exams, with their associated invalidity, because of the recession.
    I agree that continuous assessment does not work as efficiently or effectively as it could, mainly because the tasks are far too long (e.g. 3500 words), encouraging ‘waffling’ skills rather than the demonstration of higher intelligence.
    In the workshop I’m running in the UK and in Australia on ‘Teaching in the Recession’, I explore with participants ten things we can do which cost nothing, but improve the efficiency and effectiveness of teaching, assessment, learning and feedback, and save us time and money. Retreating to exams is not one of these.

    Phil Race

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    And indeed Phil will be running this workshop in Galway next week for staff here. Keen to hear what he has to say.

  6. mc Says:

    I too am saddened to think that the benefits of more varied and diverse assessment (in terms of both timing and nature) might well be lost in the attempts to become more cost and time effective in our practice. Whilst plagiarism is a concern, our efforts must always focus on educating the student to recognise and understand plagiarism, and to use plagiarism detection tools to this end. Yes, providing quality feedback is a time-consuming act, but it is difficult to see how students can complete the learning cycle without it.

  7. Perry Share Says:

    The whole area of plagiarism and academic integrity is one that I am working on at the moment, and I may report back here in the future on the outcomes!

    Suffice to say, there is absolutely no reason that one cannot ‘plagiarise’ in an exam, and I cannot accept for a minute that a shift back towards exams is the answer to the funding crisis in HE.

    It is almost a matter of faith amongst the contributors to this blog that the rote learning and cynical learning (and teaching) strategies of the Leaving Cert are part of the ‘problem’ for HE. Now there is a suggestion that a similar approach be applied to university education.

    There are numerous ways that authentic assessment tasks can be devised that will encourage students to engage with the world in ways that reflect the broad diversity of academic discourses and literacies that exist. Exams of course are a good way of training students to do exams, if that is what you want to do. But they have precious little to do with education.

    • Perry, whether exams encourage rote learning depends entirely on how the course is constructed and how the exam questions are put and how the students are prepared. There is no reason in the world why exam questions and answers cannot be analytical and intellectually stimulating. Just because one examination framework does it badly – i.e. the Leaving Certificate – does not mean that all others are required to do it badly also.

      I have myself over many years argued the importance of continuous assessment for much the same reasons that others are arguing here. But we do have to face certain realities, and not all of them are financial or resource driven (though we cannot just dismiss these as unimportant). One of these realities is that, on average, you don’t actually get much better outputs than you would from exams, though admittedly the better performances may sometimes be from different people in each.

      I am also not suggesting we should stop giving students essays, projects and assignments. But in some ways these may be more intelligently handled if less rides on them. And as for how to motivate students, you can still make them compulsory – i.e. no exams can be sat unless you have submitted your assignments.

      If you were to ask me what teaching tools are most important, continuous assessment would come a long way further down the list for me than small(er) group teaching. I would focus on that.

      • Perry Share Says:

        I think there is an interesting debate to be had here, and unfortunately it is probably only taking place in public on this blog (though I’m sure there are fascinating discussions going on in Iain’s workshops and others organised by academic development units across the country).

        As regular readers will know 🙂 I am convinced that the availability of ubiquitous digital information is having as fundamental an impact on education as did the invention and adoption of the printing press: which is to say a pretty dramatic effect, and one that inevitably leads to tensions, resistances and debates!

        Basically, the old model of education, where specialist knowledge was governed by gatekeepers who could determine how it was to be conveyed to others, and then how that was to be rewarded, is over.

        I don’t know what is going to replace the old model, and I don’t think anybody does yet, but I would be surprised if it means going back to exams.

        To me education is all about communication and the development of shared understandings within disciplinary, professional and occupational communities. Like all communication, its success depends on a modicum of shared values and meanings, a sense of purpose and efficacy, self-esteem, fun, emotion and attainment of something valuable.

        This can occasionally happen in an exam, as voiced very clearly by one of the participants in RTE’s recent school documentary. Many of those who work in education, who have a positive experience of education, also find exams reassuring and even fulfilling.

        But I suspect those people who find exams meaningful and joyful, let alone effective in the lodging of information in long-term memory, are in the minority. I think that most people are more interested in (and therefore more likely to get something out of) forms of communication that allow them to engage with others in a meaningful way. Continuous and formative assessment tends to allow for this.

        Teaching processes, including small-group teaching and learning that overtly facilitates 2-way communication (as opposed to mini-lectures)is a crucial contributor to this model of education and it can be expensive in terms of resources (though there are ways to address this).

        The challenge is to facilitate such processes within an education system which also has as its aim the sorting of people into categories that they can then mobilise to gain enhanced income, esteem, status and wealth – which is after all a key function of the system in our society. Education for understanding, and education for sorting/rationing of power, are two very different things, and may be mutually incompatible.

  8. Michael Says:

    A cheaper alternative may be to use peer assessment and feedback. An example from DCU (which I know from having taking the very course discussed, worked wonderfully well)

  9. Sharon Says:

    Is Ferdinand being deliberately provocative here?

    We know that students learn best through doing, making, practising, researching and we encourage and acknowledge that activity by using continuous assessment. Formal, sit-down examinations only encourage rote learning. As Perry points out, there is no reason that one cannot plagiarise in an exam, and we’ve all had our powerpoint slides regurgitated back to us in exam scripts.

    From my own recent experience as a student on a diploma in Italian, I know that I learned from class activities, grammar exercises, written essays, online quizzes, conversation evenings, all of which were assessed continuously. For the final exam, I simply revised my grammar and learned off a few essays general enough to answer any question that might come up. In the real world, I doubt if I’ll have to compose some Italian text while locked away in a room with no access to a dictionary.

    Continuous assessment doesn’t have to be resource intensive. There are many tools and techniques that can be used to minimise costs and maximise learning. I’m certainly looking forward to Phil Race’s session at NUI Galway next week.

    Finally, in my opinion, the plagiarism issue is a complete red-herring and reminds me of the unfortunate comments made by Boris Johnson (then shadow higher education minister in the UK) in 2006.

  10. Plagiarism is indeed a huge problem for the modern student who has no conception of intellectual property, ownership, or attribution and citation, even after being given special lectures in these topics.

    But I worry much more about a lack of understanding and appreciation of plagiarism by *faculty* and the *university executive*.

    My experiences in reporting plagiarism at UCD have all been full of frustration and dismal failures. I was told for five years that I must be doing something wrong in my courses because I catch as many cheaters as the rest of the College combined. Yet, when I ask for cheaters to be punished, nothing happens and, sometimes, grades are changed to permit the students to pass the course.

    In anther example, we had a student copy an MSc thesis and the executive saw fit to fine the student 100 Euro and ask them to resubmit!

    Another nail in the coffin that led to my recent move,
    Joe Kiniry

  11. cormac Says:

    I think both of F.’s reservations on continuous harassment (hee hee) are valid,and am reassured to see this awareness at the lofty heights of management.
    A third drawback rarely gets mentioned – it is often much more difficult for externs to play a meaningful role in courses that are mainly assessed by CA. I have experienced this both as a lecturer and as an extern: in many ways, CA is much more dependent on the individual lecturer, and harder to hold to an obvious standard.
    A brief glimpse at an exam paper tells an extern a lot about the standard of a given course – a series of essays (if you even get the) is harder to gauge.

  12. John Carter Says:


    Continuous assessment need not necessarily risk plagiarism, which is only really a potential problem in essay-type do-in-your-own-time assessments.

    In drama for example, the assessed performance is in real time and manifestly individual. In painting, the assessed object cannot be downloaded or cut and pasted, and it’s easy enough to see the student at work on his ‘product’. The same is true in significant parts of Design and engineering, where a tangible product is delivered.

    I would have thought assessor subjectivity at least as significant a problem as plagiarism, especially in read/review type assessments – how well has this student understood this already-in-existence object, and how closely does his opinion and style of expression correspond to my own or (for academics) the established range of views?

    In any case, these problems would appear, in general, to be more prevalent in what I call thinker-talker subjects, where the output is essentially textual assessment of already-in-existence textual assessment, than thinker-creator subjects, where a tangible, inherently original and hopefully useful product is produced.

    Otherwise, what we are looking at is the assessment of the assessment of assessment. In such an involuted vortex, the cry of plagiarism seems rather moot.

    • John Carter Says:

      May I resubmit that last paragraph?

      Otherwise, what we are looking at is the assessment of the assessment of assessment. In such an involuted vortex, constructed of little more than mutual reference, the cry of “plagiarism” seems pointedly moot.

  13. […] examinations failed? Earlier this year I wrote a post for this blog in which I wondered whether continuous assessment as the principal form of evaluating […]

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