Do we assess what we’ve taught, or something else?

This was the title of a little contribution I made last week to the University of Kent’s series on Digitally Enhanced Education, published  on u-tube It took me a  minute or two to get into the swing of it, but I think I raised some important questions. Thanks to Dr Phi Anthony and colleagues for organising the sessions, and making the whole Webinar including my slides and talk available at:


Backwards to normal?


Now that UK Education Ministers are assuming that the worst of the pandemic is over, there’s talk of how to measure school-based achievement in 2022. This seems to me to be going back to using time-constrained, on-site unseen written assessments, at least in part, with all the stress and anxiety for school students that they convey. In the UK Guardian newspaper on 30 September, the minister for education, Nadhim Zahawi said, talking about public exams for schoolchildren in the coming year, “We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year“. I would argue that this is certainly a contested matter and, in my view, completely wrong.

In higher education globally, when traditional exams were no longer able to be on the menu in 2020-1, much energy and creativity focused on how else we could gauge students’ learning, what else could be used as evidence of their achievement, and how might this lead to long-term improvements in education. A flavour of the wide range of possibilities is reflected in the work of Sally Brown, Kay Sambell and contributors at, for example, many of these features are directly transferable to schools’ education.

I’ve long been aware of the limitations of traditional exams and am hoping that the fruits of many practitioners’ labours during the pandemic will inform the future shape of assessment, bringing into play the many other ways to assess than those of the old exam paradigm.

My thoughts are presently focusing round the following questions:

  1. What are the main dangers in our attempts to quantify students’ learning, using this particular mode of assessment?
  2. How far are we now straying in our test conditions from the everyday learning environment (not least during the pandemic) which surrounds learning, progress and everyday practice?
  3. Whereas traditional exams can address issues around who is actually completing the assignment (‘whodunit?’ I call it) to some extent, which is not really addressed at all well by traditional essays for example, what do unseen, time-constrained exams actually measure, and what are their principal failings?
  4. How far are we still from really being able to measure how well students have succeeded in their efforts to embrace our syllabus content?
  5. How distant is our syllabus content from the authentic reality of what we hope students will achieve?

I plan in future posts to explore some of these questions with fresh views inspired by our experience of the pandemic, and to propose some ways forward to make sure that assessment adds value to the student experience rather than being a cause of dismay, disappointment, and disillusionment.

A better 2021?

Last year was unprecedented?

Here’s wishing you a much better one for 2021. For me, last year also had the pain leading the a replacement hip this month, so not much sitting at a computer – but now I’m back again.

Still thinking – and a great deal to ponder about learning and assessment in particular. Are we heading in better directions at last in higher education? Waiting, watching and hoping.

Meanwhile … let the music play on?

Way back in March 2020, I recall hearing on the radio the thoughts of Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times as follows: “Before the coronavirus crisis hit, I was toying with writing a book about 21st-century political parties, but in light of this global epidemic it’s obvious that whatever nonfiction book you’re working on now, put it down. There is the world B.C. — Before Corona — and the world A.C. — After Corona. We have not even begun to fully grasp what the A.C. world will look like…” (

I’m all too aware from the statistics on the pandemic that globally we’re just starting, even though for the present in the UK the first peak has largely subsided. Events change daily, with the most recent being the rules that people returning from Spain are to self-isolate for two weeks. What next? Now in July 2020, I continue to wonder what the world will look like – particularly two elements I’m connected with – learning, and music. Will ‘live performances’ ever be quite the same again – particularly large-scale concerts or packed lectures? Fortunately we have technology to enable communication of thoughts, images, sounds and emotions to and from each other, and to record what is communicated so it can take place again, but will the unique occasion ever prevail in the way it could pre-covid19?

Naturally, 250 years after the birth of Beethoven, I’ve been revisiting many of his masterpieces. Last year, with friends I really enjoyed all nine symphonies being played live, in two days, by five different orchestras in turn at the Sage, Gateshead – what a feast. The recent 3-part portrayal of his life and works on BBC4 was revelatory. Some of my exercise is on an exercise bike in our conservatory at home, pedalling away, watching the weather, birds, and the changing mood of the garden outside. My activity is accompanied by music played through an old iPod on shuffle at the other end of the conservatory. From time to time, I have to temporarily dismount to ascertain who the performers are by looking at the tiny iPod screen. Such an occasion gave rise to the attached musings on one of Beethoven’s best-known works. Emperors-New-Clothes.docx (1314 downloads)

Musing backwards and forward

 Like most over-70s, I’m currently in lockdown at home in Newcastle, but still thinking – and worrying of course – about the future of higher education as we’ve known it for a long time. Looking backwards, among my first books were two editions of ‘The Open Learning Handbook’, dated 1989 and 1994, both now extinct of course (photos attached to remind older readers of what they looked like!). By 1994, the addition of the words ‘flexible learning’ and ‘quality’ showed the changes in my thinking. These works were based on a series of short booklets I wrote for CICED in Scotland in the 1980s, and my then experience of being an open learning tutor and writer alongside my normal job, all following the excellent development work of the market leaders in open learning – the Open University in the UK.

Little could I have then imagined that the ‘normal’ world of lectures and tutorials could quite suddenly disappear with Covid19. Over the last 30 years, remote learning has of course developed remarkably, not least with the development of online resources and processes – indeed I think that most learning back in 2019 relied significantly on computers, screens, email, texting, and a plethora of different ways of communication now in use between learners and tutors alike.

Now, I am watching with great interest the creative use being made of all the modern ways of communicating information, replacing formal lectures and tutorials and face-to-face meetings, so that learning continues to be possible. I am wondering whether things can ever return to the pre-Covid19 state, and increasingly thinking that things will now remain rather different. Of course, the changes go far beyond learning and teaching, with normal life including restaurants, pubs, theatres, hotels, festivals, concert halls, cinemas and so on currently withdrawn across much of the world, let alone in the higher education bubble.

Over the years, I have become increasingly interested in ‘measuring’ learning, and the role of feedback dialogues in learning. The traditional methodologies of assessment centred on exams, essays, and written evidence of learning seem very remote from the world we are now addressing. Earlier this year, Kay Sambell and my wife Sally Brown put forward some thinking of how assessment may need to change, and two widely-downloaded accounts of their thinking can be found on Sally’s website at and

It seems the ‘open learning’ of the 20th century is now metamorphosing into online learning for the 21st century, and assessment – as always – is perhaps the most difficult and important area that needs to be focused upon. I would like to think that the next year or two will see some of the most important advances in learning (and indeed in teaching) that will mark out the future of higher education, alongside many other changes in the balance of how the world around us will function.

The basic principles remain the same: (1) keep learners at the centre of the picture of higher education, (2) help them to be aware of how well they are doing, and how to go about addressing any shortcomings. and (3) make sure that humanity is still there supporting all the information and data they learn with.