ALTF Student Success series | Assessing for transition

1st August 2018

Student success blog


For our Student Success Blog series, our ALT Fellows contribute to the conversation on sector wide issues around student success in higher education. Here, Professor Nicolette Lee of La Trobe University shares her expert insights for assessing for transition. 

In the transition-out space, the assessment of discipline knowledge and skills, with success determined by the sole judgement of the teacher, is often in tension with the need to support the development of agency and evaluative judgement in our students.

These tensions can be stark. By way of example, while we commonly expect students to undertake some form of inquiry by examining existing knowledge and applying it to a given topic, we less commonly reward students for taking an entirely different approach, or for challenging our own perspectives. There is a temptationto assess the provision of an outcome as if the goal is always completion. Weoften find it difficult to measure achievement in messy situations. Criteria too, are often set in such detail that an intelligent response from students is to attempt to adhere as closely as possible to the rules in order to achieve the expected performance. In the high stakes context of final year, this is a sensible and pragmatic approach for students to take. It is also counterproductive to demonstrating any mature capacity for judgement, other than the effective judgement of teacher preferences.

Curriculum that affords independence, criticality and creativity can challenge our own approach to curriculum design and to assessment. If students are to engage in a complex problem or scenario, this may well include challenging the frames of reference and norms for the discipline. Assessment of the processes and outcomes do not need to address whether or not a correct or complete solution has been provided – a problem that has correct or complete solutions is, by definition, not sufficiently complex. Rather, the goal is to establish and value the process of engaging with complexity and continuous self-assessment of the validity and limitations of any approach.

This can mean offering students situations in which their first task is problem definition, where no particular resources are provided, and where no single discipline approach is sufficient. Assessment then becomes focused not on specific solutions, but on the robustness with which the problem has been addressed, the range of approaches considered, and the capacity of the student to engage in continuous evaluation – including of the discipline, profession or field. The criteria for assessment, and our own assumptions about known answers, must be more flexible and more attuned to the value of disparate learning processes and learning outcomes than might be the norm.

It is important, also, to remember that authentic, challenging activities involving critical inquiry naturally result in intrinsic feedback (Lee, 2006). That is, feedback that arises from the unfolding experience and is ‘situated in the action of a student, not in the assessment of their actions by a third party’ (p. 19). This aspect of the learning process and its assessment is often ignored, but presents an opportunity to deeply embed an awareness of circumstance and the implicit messages that can be found in the way the work unfolds.

Making intrinsic feedback visible is the first step in integration of the learning opportunity that it provides. That is, assessment should be structured to acknowledge students’ capacity to identify the ways in which the experience suggests areas of difficulty, external quality benchmarks and opportunities to undertake improvement. Responses of students to these judgements, drawing on their own judgement and interpretation of extrinsic feedback about the ways in which the work is faltering, advancing and is of value, should be central to the assessment process.

In practice, this means that the assessment process for building post-graduate capability is deeply social, self-determined and iterative. The demands of integrative, complex work in authentic environments requires self-management. The design of assessment should ensure that opportunities are provided for students to evaluate the work of others, to have multiple viewpoints provided on their own decisions, reasoning and progress, to establish for themselves where further improvement is required, and to demonstrate learning through articulation and justification of their responses.

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Nicki is Executive Director (Quality and Standards) at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She was previously the Acting Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Director (Learning and Teaching) at Victoria University and the Academic Director, Swinburne Professional Learning. Over the past decade, Nicki has designed and taught numerous capstones, and led the implementation of capstones across disciplines. She has a background and research interests in higher education curriculum models, particularly final year experience and transition, project and problem based approaches, design education and learning environment design and evaluation.