Understand what flexible assessment is, where to start, and explore links to further reading, guidance and support.
Why make assessment flexible
Building flexibility into your assessment by giving students agency in the process can help realise a variety of positive student attributes, including creativity and engagement. It can also foster inclusivity and deeper learning in the subject.
Flexible assessment, whilst not a prerequisite, it does build foundations for more authentic assessment. Furthermore, it builds in more opportunity for developing soft skills, work skills and digital skills.
Finally and further to the inclusivity point above, flexible assessment reduces the reliance on reasonable adjustments, such as extra time on timed exams.
What is flexible assessment?
Flexible assessment is by definition, flexible. It is assessment designed to enable and facilitate student choice, such as in the method or format of their assessment, or the topics on which they choose to focus. As such, it is an approach which emphasises the role of assessment FOR learning.
So, on the spectrum of flexibility:
- at the very inflexible end we might place an 100% weighted unseen exam comprising a single question on a topic chosen by the lecturer
- whereas, at the very flexible end, we might see students choosing their weightings, modes, methods, tasks, timings or topics and/or students co-creating their assessment tasks.
Consequently, to move from the very inflexible to the very flexible end of the spectrum necessitates a transition from ‘This is how I want you to show me you've achieved the learning objectives’ to ‘How do you want to show me you've achieved the learning objectives’.
Jumping straight from one end to the other will require a significant change in approaches to assessment. However, there are less daunting way to build flexibility into your assessment which can still promote student agency and inclusion. As we explore in the next section, these exist within assessment modes you are probably already using.
What flexible assessment is not
Flexible assessment isn’t about reducing academic standards, nor is it about asking your students to submit whatever they want whenever they want. It’s about activating your students in the assessment process and engaging them by promoting agency in their own learning, enabling them to play to their strengths and develop key skills in addition to the subject material.
How to make your assessments more flexible
The following examples are based on the most commonly used assessment modes at the university. They also illustrate changes that could be applied to other assessment modes.
Exam questions (CEX)
In this mode, time, medium and format are largely fixed. To introduce flexibility:
- consider your question choice. For example, do they advantage any one demographic? If so, introduce a range of examples that are representative of your cohort.
- provide a choice of questions on a variety of topics
- involve your students in voting for, or even co-creating, exam questions.
Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs)
In this mode, the response, format and time are fixed.
To introduce flexibility, where offering a sequence of MCQs which conflate to give a final mark, consider allowing one to be dropped. For example, if a student has been ill during that week, this would alleviate anxiety and allow students to better demonstrate their best selves. It will also reduce the admin burden for extenuating circumstances.
There is lots of scope for building flexibility into this mode. For example, you might:
- give students the opportunity to come up with their own essay title or focus
- give students a choice of audience, format or medium.
Probably the most flexible assessment mode. To use these, you can:
- enable students to compile evidence addressing a range of topics presented in formats of their choosing (or from an agreed range)
- ask students to combine the above with an over-arching commentary on the evidence provided, setting it into the appropriate conceptual framework and demonstrating how they have met the module learning outcomes.
We encourage you to start small and create and scaffold spaces for flexible assessment in a considered manner. We’ve all experienced how too much choice can make us feel anxious if the implications of choosing one option over another are not made clear. Your students will feel the same.
See below for things to consider and questions to ask yourself.
It is important to note the following.
Expectations and information
Ensuring your students have all the info they need to make informed decisions and manage their own time and workload is essential. What needs to be where, by when. You will be doing this already, but the more flexible your assessments are, you should be doubling down on the amount of clarity you provide students.
- provide a few examples of what good submissions look like, ideally with comments to illustrate how they meet the assessment criteria / could improve
- ensure guidance is clearly signposted for handling multiple media, including captions and alt text where necessary
- provide multiple check ins through the term, to allow students get feedback from you and their peers; for instance, checking their chosen approach or focus will enable them to meet the learning outcomes, to build their portfolio iteratively
- use the spaces in the assignment info area in Canvas to provide links for how to guides, such as for recording audio.
Rubrics are an essential tool for:
- showing your students what is being assessed
- managing your own marking workload
- ensuring consistency amongst markers.
Students should have no ambiguity on where to focus their efforts as a result of reading the rubric.
When setting an essay, providing students with a suggested word count is standard practice. When you are allowing students to choose what media to submit, for example a video, poster, written or audio submission, you need to provide the equivalent length/volume for this media.
Your school may have already provided these equivalencies, so speak to your DTL. Alternatively, see page 5 of Don’t Panic: The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Alternative Assessment [PDF 862KB] by Damian Gordon for one such suggested table.
When working with a team of markers, external examiners, moderators and accrediting bodies, it is vital that you are all marking as per the rubric and apply that consistently. Have a conversation about this ahead of marking, this will ensure consistency of marks between say a video and a written piece.
- Teaching and learning
On teaching and learning, consider the following.
What is the purpose of these assessments, what is it helping the students see? Is it for them to practice the summative assessment modes, or get a pulse check of where they are at with the subject, or both? Ensuring there are opportunities for students to practice in a no or low stakes exercise is critical.
What does a good take away paper look like? What does a good portfolio look like, or a bad one? Providing examples will help the students who may not have done them before know what finished might look like. These can be used in formative exercises for example having students work in pairs to mark and provide feedback on a submission.
A valuable tool for building your student's assessment literacy and can be combined with co-created and flexible assessment modes.
Balance and consistency.
Being consistent not just in how you mark, but in the support and scaffolding you provide to students will ensure they feel supported and safe to be able to make choices and feel empowered in their own learning. We don't suggest you start off by changing your high weighted summative exam right away. Find a balance that works for you, your students and your subject. There will be times your students need direction.
- Quality Assurance
It is vital to consider:
- module Changes – for your summative modes of assessment, you will likely need to submit change requests, for example if you want to change a presentation (PRE) to a portfolio (POF)
- academic standards – Ensuring you retain a constructive alignment between your assessments and learning objectives is crucial. Also, making explicit links between your LOs and your assessments will benefit your students
- Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Benchmarks – Check your subject benchmarks in the QAA documentation. They do detail some suggestions for alternative types of assessment and encourage the development of creativity and variety in assessment.
References and further reading
Find guidance and case studies from other institutions and organisation from:
- #LTHEChat no. 202 Introductory blog post to that week's chat Also contains a more exhaustive reference list).
- 10 Points to Consider in Choosing Alternative Assessment Methods for the Online Environment, National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education
- Engineering Subject Centre Mini-Project : Assessment Choice Case Study, AdvanceHE
- Flexible Assessment for a Hybrid Model, Student Learning and Academic Registry, Teeside University
- Forward with FLEXibility, McMaster University
- Inclusive Assessment Good Practice Guide, Plymouth University (specifically section 6, equivalences and section 10, flexible assessment)
- LTE Bites 06 – Strategies for Embedding Flexible Assessment, Student Learning and Academic Registry, Teeside University
- Strategies to Offer Flexible Assessment and Delivery, RMIT University
- Workload Equivalences, page 5, Don’t Panic: The Hitch-hiker's Guide to Alternative Assessment by Damian Gordon
Get more information from:
- Biggs, J. (2003) Aligning Teaching for Constructive Learning
- Cook, A. (2001). Assessing the Use of Flexible Assessment. Assessment And Evaluation In Higher Education 26(6), 539-549
- IRWIN, Brian and HEPPLESTONE, Stuart (2012). Examining increased flexibility in assessment formats. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 37 (7), 773-785
- Pacharn, P., Bay, D. and Felton, S. (2013). The impact of a flexible assessment system on students’ motivation, performance and attitude. Accounting Education 22(2), 147-167.
- Rideout, C. A. (2018). Students’ choices and achievement in large undergraduate classes using a novel flexible assessment approach. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 43 (1), 68-78.