The following are lightly-edited notes from our second workshop, held on the afternoon of Wednesday 8th March, in which students came together with faculty to confront the challenges of assessment in general.  In bold are the prompts, questions and contributions made by Josh and Fabienne, who led the workshop.  All other comments are from participants.  Many thanks to Danielle Mustarde for taking these notes.

Recap of discussion in Workshop 1:

  • Doing a close reading for the first assessment didn’t seem to match up to the broadness of the theory.
  • Disjointed nature of the assessment on the module: the second essay, more on their own interests, whereas you couldn’t do the same for the first, so people would just get the firs tout of the way. No progress/development.
  • There could be longer seminars.
  • Mid-term presentations.
  • More form of feedback.


Student Feedback #2

  • It would be nice to see the broadness of the subject reflected in the first assessment.
  • If someone hasn’t done critical concepts in the first year, suddenly being thrown into CLT feels a little, sudden.
  • Feeling that you’re not allowed to draw on contemporary literature.
  • Actually some of the most interesting ideas have come out of comparing across themes/periods. Trying to be more creative.
  • Creativity: assessment inhibits creativity. Grading diminishes it. A feeling of “stick to what you know”, in order to get a good grade. When students try to do an interested essay, quite often fails because they try to be ambitious.
  • Exeter – trailing where you do all the essays for the module, but then select 50% of them to hand in at the end of the module. It’s hard to judge people’s participation. People can choose their best work/strongest pieces. For example, pushing forward there essay work rather than participation.
  • How flexible can assessment be made? Start at the module, start of the year – negotiate how weighted different assessments should be. It would be good to have an element of negotiation. Personalise it more. More about playing to everyone’s strengths.
  • In our department: (academic) things can happen on our module, it’s harder to do that across a department. The university says no to the flexibility displayed at Exeter. Here we have degree classification system. Ranking marks from top to bottom and looking in the middle. But in other universities, count the top eight marks. It’s difficult to make that kind of flexibility to happen e.g. the time for those negotiations. Something would have to ‘give’, e.g. less going on with specific teaching in a seminar.
  • It does exist in this university as well (another academic).
  • What about a portfolio kind of structure of assessment? How do you think that would work with that kind of marking? (Student)
  • Within a module, it’s entirely doable. In a way, I think we should be thinking more radically than that… find ways to allow for a bit more freedom and creativity. That’s where it gets more tricky – the university’s numerical systems.
  • What you’d end up doing – you’d be writing or presenting a lot more. You’d certainly have to keep an eye on workload for the module (portfolio system). So many words for so many credits.
  • Concern that students will be overworked with lots of assessments.
  • Because the assessments are all in one go…
  • …more like feast and famine?
  • More about the assessment than an educational project. Seminars just something I have to attend.
  • Mental health consideration: pace assessments throughout the year.


  • Challenges: relationship between curriculum and assessment (academic). We think about the curriculum first, what are the best books I can teach? And then, oh blimey, how will I fit them in to 10 weeks? And then you think, how do we assess? The curriculum becomes 10 discreet units, rather than 10 connected items. It impacts on the assessment in certain ways.
  • Clear message: first assessment really different from second one – annoying. But it doesn’t feel like you’re covering enough.


English Department don’t really seem to know why they’re doing exams. What is the reasoning?

  • It feels like remembering quotes, close reading – can you write quickly? What is it we’re actually being tested on?
  • I quite enjoyed them as a student – exams – just the adrenaline! Amazing things can happen under pressure.
  • Analyses I got in the exams were better than those in the essay, I thought (academic).
  • Exam elements lift the mark? They certainly don’t depress it. Often a module with an exam in it, a fear from students that the exam might bring your work down. But the research we looked at – it doesn’t seem to. But, in terms of individual experience…
  • Agnostic about exams, it might be worth thinking about the way we communicate the value of exams to students (tutor).
  • Exams shouldn’t supress your enjoyment of a degree programme. We are thinking about an exam as ‘transferrable skills’, to think under pressure, to respond quickly. So I do think there are value in exams, but I think maybe we need to talk to you about what we want from exams.


  • Affective/effective. If you have an exam coming up and you’re stressed out, then you’re not working on a transferable skill, but if you were it could be good.
  • Close reading exams – more apparent on what we’re being tested on there.
  • You have to be careful what type of assessments you’re using – they test one particular skills. Why people might use lots of different types of assessment. Don’t necessarily need to have a good understanding of the subject to get a decent mark – tests other things.
  • Tension: UG degree between training for a PhD and going into work afterwards.


Let’s listen to Ansgar Allen’s provocation.  Ansgar is from the School of Education.  He argues, to a degree, that what we should be doing is fuel the full violence of assessment so that it becomes unbearable.

  • Aims to encourage students to become active in their own assessments
  • Interested because it operates within its own very definite limits – seeks to reimagine and redesign one module, at one university – but will still contribute to a degree programme. Typical of many attempts to redesign assessment.
  • More open, democratic practices. Again, constraints: any lecturers involved will most likely remain employees answerable to the university. Students: most likely remain students at the university, e.g. burden of fees payable to that institution.
  • Take on this, to argue: invitations like these, often help to conceal the considerable gulf that remains between actors in these institutions. An institution which does not operate democratically.
  • Least surprising to students: understand basic nature of university. Must confront those limits.
  • Argue that, to work within these limits: amounts to a form of disavowal.
  • When it comes to assessment, tends to oppose itself to everything that it regards as “in human”. Reduce complexities to a single measure (pass/fail, etc.) Reductive, divisive. Nonetheless, almost impossible to imagine a society like outs without assessment.
  • Reform attempts generally stick within these parameters. Seek to humanise, to soften its affects, make them more meaningful. Often done by giving those examined a role.
  • Basic logic: transformed into a tool that they themselves may use. Taking upon themselves the labour or examination, make it more useful, to make more sense for themselves, humanised in that respect.
  • Implicit history of examination, which I must say, I do not recognise.
  • Much longer history of examination: history of systems of personal introspection. Examiners and examinees in their own heads. The idea of the examined life. The unexamined life as “not worth living”.
  • Basic fall back option. Because of this, we are convinced that we are saving ourselves from examination if we shift it from something distant to something close, meaningful and intimate. I would claim, what we’re doing here is reasserting a more ancient mode of examination.
  • No accident that this was first developed in antiquity, intended to tie those involved to a set of dogmas and a view of the world. Christian church. Designed to reveal the soul of the individual. Basic technical starting point for the modern school.
  • Modern examination in the mechanistic sense, developed as an accompaniment to the already established practices.
  • When we appeal to this older, pre-modern tradition. We risk falling victim to it a second time. We risk concealing the more obvious frameworks of power.
  • The current system you hope to modify, may be more desirable.

Well, what do you make of that?

  • I’m not sure I buy it (academic). It doesn’t sound to me that you’re (students) confessing yourselves, it sounds like you’re saying difference practices allow for different knowledges, so we’d like to work within different discursive practices – is that right?
  • Flip what he says: he sees softening as going back to Socrates. By performing examination we are examining ourselves, but in a different mode.
  • Found it interesting – origins of formal examination – he’s right in that exams were brought in as a tool of democratisation, a “standard test”, just because your father was Lord Snooty Wotsit, you were still being tested to the same criteria. It’s a fair standard. Doesn’t reflect on who you are as a person. One of the problems, very difficult to take that feedback and not think “you are judging me as a person.”


  • Interesting considering we’re arts and humanities. STEM, e.g. don’t feel like anything’s very personal. Whereas in English and arts and humanities, feedback is more a way of personal progression.


  • If the essay becomes the dominant mode of assessment..? We feel it’s infinitely flexible, but I wonder if it feels like that to the students? Do you feel like that? There are umpteen other things you could do.
  • I think it would be good to do other things – student.
  • No matter how much variety, exams have to serve this economic purpose – unless you can divorce that, it’s always going to be linked to economic.
  • An exam or an assessment not evaluating the individual person, but assessing them as a concrete, material ‘thing’. We’re making ourselves complicit in a regulatory system.

What other things could you grade on? Other than academic ability?

  • Engagement with the module? Or your development? Allowing development and then rewarding that.
  • Peer marking? We get to evaluate each other’s work?
  • Assessment as a tool in learning? Works well, but not when students are working against each other – competitively.
  • The point on curriculum – other aspects of curricula – I wonder whether one of the ways we might think about things is to crack out the relationship between the syllabus and the assessment.
  • Reconfigure how you think about the knowledge gained on a module. What is curriculum? Who owns it? Who assesses it?
  • One short assessment on my module: select what we’re going to teach, we pick our theories and teach them. Student choose a theory at the end to write about and they go mad – because it’s too open. Being pushed into being prescriptive. Students want to pass. They’re fearful of not passing. But I want to keep it open.
  • Blogs, public engagement pieces – which academics do – it might be possible to have some negotiation in that sense, students could do different types of writing. Surely there are more options available than just essays or exams.
  • Blogs, portfolios, etc.
  • ThinkCreate module – work on different forms on assessments – our group made a website. It was actually a really good idea. It would be good to see that in practice. That was technically peer assessed. I think it would be interested to see something like that implemented.
  • Students stick with what they know.
  • ThinkCreate – it needs to be there for a reason, not forcing people together for the sake of it because it looks good on university marketing. Departments need to find a reason to come together.
  • …it was all day every day, for a full week as well. “DO A PROJECT”.
  • On our module, project, not assessed, where you learn about other disciplines.

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