Assessment literacy

by | Oct 19, 2021 | Institute Fellowships, Projects, Quality

Sally Hickson, The University of ManchesterSally Hickson SFHEA (Deputy Head of Student Operations for the School of Heath Sciences) has a keen interest in curriculum design with a particular focus on assessment, and co-chairs the FBMH Assessment and Feedback Effective Practice Hub. In 2020/21 Sally was one of the ITL’s Inaugural Fellows, undertaking a project that explored the assessment literacy of staff, identifying gaps in knowledge, exploring innovative practice and working collaboratively to encourage the transformation of assessment strategies.


How literate are we about assessment? In my role I had encountered a huge variety in assessment literacy amongst colleagues. Some were at the forefront of new and innovative thinking, transforming their assessments and co-creating with students; whereas others were involved in setting assessment tasks with very little knowledge of how best to go about it, and of the wider role that assessments play in the students’ learning experience.  

Interested to explore this further, I applied for a Fellowship with the Institute of Teaching and Learning and was thrilled to be awarded one of the inaugural Fellowships in 2020. 

What did I set out to do? 

The aim of my project was to explore levels of staff assessment literacy at the University of Manchester, and consider ways this could be improved. I wanted to see what the University was doing to support colleagues in improving their own assessment literacy, see what more we could do, and draw on examples from other institutions and the literature.  

How did I go about it?  

I undertook a widespread literature review, and after 9 months of reading, I have to say there is very little in the literature on assessment literacy of staff (whereas there is a plethora relating to assessment literacy of students). I worked with two student interns to hold a series of student focus groups to gain their perceptions of staff assessment literacy. As students are the main stakeholders in assessments, I wanted to explore their experiences and perceptions of how well their lecturers discussed assessments, and how well-prepared students felt as a result.  

I also undertook a thorough review of the content relating to assessment, feedback, and curriculum design within the New Academics Programmes across the three faculties, to ensure that the NAP content was contemporary with current and emerging thinking on assessment and feedback, and covered similar learning outcomes. Whilst only a small percentage of staff attend NAP courses each year, it forms the foundation for many new academics, and it’s vital that the right messages and content are delivered.  

The last of my planned activities was to review all University and Faculty-level documentation, policies, strategies and processes relating to assessment, feedback, and curriculum design. This review highlighted a number of areas where more could be done to support colleagues in the design and delivery of assessment, and I’m pleased that, as a result, resources are becoming available through the ITL website to augment the official documentation with supportive guidance documents and resources for staff.  

The Impact of the pandemic  

But, by far the biggest thing that I did as a result of my Fellowship was to dive into Faculty (FBMH) and University working groups to support the rapid shift to online assessment as a result of the pandemic and to highlight the urgent need for assessment literacy. In some ways, this diverted the original aims of the project, to focus more on online assessment and facilitating the sudden need for greater guidance and resources for staff in this area. As a result, I was pleased to contribute to developing a fantastic set of resources and guidance for staff, and for students, which is housed on the ITL website. 

What has or will come out of my project? 

I can answer this question from two perspectives. Firstly, considering deliverables that are available to support the improvement in staff assessment literacy: check out the ITL website for all the resources and guidance that have come about from my work on online assessment, such as a resource for staff on designing and delivering effective open book assessments. Working with colleagues from across the University through working groups or individual conversations has enabled a great amount of good practice to be shared. This has also led to resources we have created for students, such as the student guidance on open book exams

Secondly, I have gathered a huge amount of knowledge in transforming assessments from reading, exploring resources and attending online conferences. I’ve been able to work with colleagues to look at new ways of designing assessments to make them more suitable and innovative whilst also ensuring they are fit for purpose, valid and reliable. 

‘Seven Principles of Good Assessment Design’ have been distilled from all this reading and have been made available on the ITL website and through NAP sessions.  

What did I get out of the fellowship? 

Assessment design is exciting! And there’s always new stuff to learn and share! I have got so much out of the Fellowship, which has opened many doors for me. Firstly, the immersion into a world of colleagues, both within the University and worldwide, who want to change assessment and feedback practices for better student engagement and success, as well as improving the whole experience for academics. It is really an exciting world, with new and emerging examples and ideas coming to light every day.  

Secondly, as a result of increased contact with colleagues from all walks of university life, I gained an increased awareness of the wide scope of things to be considered under the ‘staff assessment literacy’ umbrella. These include inclusivity, accessibility, authenticity, and confidence in attribution. The more that staff know about all these elements, the better our assessments will be.  

So, I started a little ball rolling, and it turned into a massive snowball that grew exponentially during the first stages of the pandemic. It’s still growing, albeit more slowly now, and it still has a long way to go.