Deputy Principal (Learning and Teaching) Weekly Update - Assessment



This is the third in the series of weekly Staff Newsletter articles in which I highlight some of the key decisions and developments that will shape how we will be delivering learning and teaching across the University in the new academic year.

This week’s article has been written with Dr Alex Buckley of our Learning and Teaching Academy.

This week’s topic – Assessment.

What impact has Covid-19 had on the way in which we assess our students?

One of the biggest challenges of the Covid-19 lockdown for the higher education sector as a whole has been the assessment of student learning. Unable to accommodate traditional face to face examinations in large venues, universities - Heriot-Watt included - put in place alternative arrangements for the summer 2020 diet; including replacing unseen papers with open book exams for students to complete in their own homes, or coursework.

What about Academic Year 2020/21?

In planning for academic year 2020/21, in common with many across the sector, our working assumption is that it will not be possible to hold large scale face to face examinations before the end of this calendar year (and perhaps longer). However, whilst ruling this out for the rest of 2020, we are keeping the position under review to assess whether a diet of face-to-face examinations of some sort might in fact be possible in May 2021.

Is this a temporary arrangement?

Whilst the ongoing Covid19 disruption necessitates an agile and pragmatic response to student assessment for next year, it also presents us with an opportunity to rethink how we do assessment ‘post pandemic’. Indeed, the temporary necessity to develop alternatives to traditional examinations may inspire some more permanent changes to how we assess.

One of the difficulties of trying out new ways of assessing is the fear of things going wrong.  The current situation, where creative experimentation is not only desirable but necessary, means that it is a good time to try out new things.

What’s wrong with a traditional examination?

For many years, the traditional – on campus, closed-book, invigilated – exam has been drifting out of favour.

A key reason for this is that traditional examinations are not very well suited to ‘assessment for learning’, the idea that assessments should be designed to help students learn, as well as measure how well they have learned.

Traditional examinations are difficult to design in a way that rewards high-order rather than rote learning. Many exams incentivise and reward skills – like speedy handwriting or the recall of large amounts of rote-learned material – which are no longer relevant to the modern world. And whilst students have often made it to university because they are ‘good at exams’, as an assessment method they may not inspire or support learning or bring out the students’ best.

What are the alternatives?

There are alternatives. For anyone looking for new ideas our Learning and Teaching Academy has published a two page Quick Guide. Externally there are excellent resources available, for example from LSE and Reading University.

Are Take-Home Examinations Worthwhile?

Take-home exams can work in lots of different ways. In some respects they work better than traditional exams, particularly in terms of being ‘authentic’, i.e. resembling the kinds of tasks that students will need to perform in professional life after they graduate. Students can type their answers rather than write by hand, they can use datasets and other material, they can access the internet; all of these are familiar features of the world of work, but absent from a traditional exam.

What about academic integrity?

A common worry about take home examinations is over the potential for students to cheat. The veracity of exams is often a key selling-point, particularly with accrediting bodies

Whilst academic integrity and the security of standards is critical (and non-negotiable), it is important not to start from the assumption that most students cheat: most don’t, and it’s also important not to assume that traditional exams are immune from the potential for cheating. Good assessment design can and does limit the potential for cheating.

How do I get started and what support is available?

Staff participating in the ‘Introducing Responsive Blended Learning’ module will have had a chance to think about how to assess next year. There are also guides for how to adapt an exam for a take-home format and alternatives to exams.

In the coming weeks there will be sessions on assessment and RBL and how colleagues around the University have gone about replacing traditional exams.


Across the sector, the shift away from traditional exams has been regarded as a temporary emergency measure, but also an opportunity. An opportunity to try out new things, to see what works, and then use this learning to enhance the way in which we use assessment to support – and inspire – student learning.