Miriam Firth: Why do we need Flexible Assessment?

by | Aug 29, 2023 | Learning and Students, Teaching | 12 comments

“Why do we need Flexible Assessment?” 

Well, we don’t. But this is a question I’ve received more than a few times since I started my role as Academic Lead for Assessment within our Flexible Learning Programme – and it’s a valid one. One that I think is worth exploring, when defining our vision for the future of assessment.  

So, why don’t we ‘need’ flexible assessment? Well firstly, flexibility within assessment already exists at the University of Manchester. We’re not starting with a blank page, and this isn’t something we need to suddenly and radically change within our assessment design and practice.  

A number of colleagues are already spearheading projects exploring different elements of flexible assessment practice across UoM. From Jenni Rose’s peer-to-peer assessment project (which empowers students to write their own feedback, using comparative judgement and making inner feedback explicit) to John Owen (who is using blogs with public comments, and leads school wide student centred assessment practices). There’s Therese Lawlor-Wright (who flexes the context of exam assessments) and Rachel Hayes and Kurt Wilson’s work (designing and developing new software for assessment). And it’s not just our colleagues leading the way either – postgrad student Krishna has recently led national discussions on AI in Assessment with JISC.  

Assessment that offers flexibility and student choice is already visible across the University.  

On a wider scale, post-pandemic, our students are more accustomed to a variety of learning contexts and communication methods. Society and industry alike are advancing in their approaches to tasks and knowledge. 

In line with this, flexibility in assessment for our learners needs to transition from being an ‘add on’ or a ‘nice to have’, to a core consideration for assessment design. So, while we do not ‘need’ flexible assessment, what we do need is to build in processes to address the question of flexibility in assessment as standard – particularly when designing new, or amending existing, assessments. 

Who is working on Assessment at the University of Manchester?  

My immediate response? A swathe of brilliant colleagues!  

We have a number of groups working to support more flexible assessment for staff and students across UoM, to ensure our approach is joined up and comprehensive. From the Institute for Teaching and Learning, to the Assessment for the Future Group, to the FSE Teaching Academy , to the Manchester Institute of Education – plus reading groups in departments and programme teams. We have a critical mass of colleagues actively working to improve and enhance assessment for our students.  

Within Flexible Learning, Assessment is one of our six core workstreams, and we’re continuously collaborating with all of the groups above, with one shared goal: to make assessment fit for the needs of our ever-changing and diverse cohort of learners.  

Within Flexible Learning, we’re leading a range of projects and pilots, which seek to identify opportunities for increased flexibility for formative (continuous) and summative (periodic) assessment for flexible pathways – however, the outputs from our work will also be of use for on campus programmes and assessments.  

 As Sian Yeowell in our Education Development team notes: “Good assessment, is good assessment.”  

 I couldn’t agree more.  

So, how can we make this a reality? 

As part of the Flexible Learning Programme’s Assessment workstream, we’ve been working with the University of York, Imperial College London and UCL to explore the feasibility and practicality of optionality in assessment – in other words, student choice. As part of this we’ve run surveys, focus groups and interviews with staff and students from all four institutions, and the feedback has been fascinating.  

One theme which came out time and time again was: “This sounds great in theory – but what about the reality?” 

We’ll be sharing the full results of all our research in November at an online event hosted by QAA, where we’ll unpack this question and more. But, luckily we’re already a few steps ahead. 

Not only are colleagues across the University already showcasing flexibility within their teaching and assessment practices, but we’re also making strides to ensure that all Manchester colleagues are singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to assessment – particularly flexible assessment.  

Within the next month, we’ll be sharing the first iteration of a new Assessment Toolkit: a one-stop shop for all things assessment, which will develop and grow over time, with help from you – its users. The Assessment Toolkit has been designed with staff and students, for staff and students. It aims to bring together all the resources that both colleagues and students use regarding assessment – in a digital space which is interactive, easy to navigate, and a single source of truth.  

Ensuring that everyone is on the same page regarding flexibility in assessment is key to a successful shift in culture and mindset, and we hope that the Assessment Toolkit will be a first step in supporting with this. Look out for Assessment Toolkit Champions across the University, who will be happy to discuss further how this can work for you! 

What does the future look like for flexible assessment? 

To meet the goals in Our future: vision and strategic plan, we need to offer assessment that meets the needs and expectations of lifelong learners in flexible learning contexts. This means our assessment needs to be adaptable and pertinent to traditional and non-traditional learners.  

Thus, the future of flexible assessment is this: embracing the cactus of ChatGPT, designing assessment for scale and context flex, whilst still enabling us to verify skills and knowledge developed. And if none of this sounds feasible for now, look out for the Assessment Toolkit – it is being built just for you. 


Dr Miriam Firth,  Academic Lead for Assessment within the Flexible Learning Programme


  1. Miriam Firth

    Thank you, Karen, central communications will confirm the launch in the next few weeks. After this I am completing a roadshow of presentations across the UoM to showcase the toolkit. If you would like us to present it to your team please do let us know via flexiblelearning@manchester.ac.uk

  2. Karen Shawhan

    Look forward to hearing more about the toolkit Miriam – how will we know this is available please? Great and interesting work to hear about, thanks for the blog.

  3. Jenni Rose

    Great blog and really interesting how we are embracing flexible assessment at Manchester.
    It is so important to make sure our assessments are inspired and engaged, transforming how students think and that they are enabling and inclusive.

    • Miriam Firth

      Couldn’t agree more. Thanks to your research, academic practice, and enthusiasm, we are already making great strides! Thanks Jenni

  4. Siobhan

    Thanks for outlining all that is happening in this area, Miri. Exciting stuff! Good to hear about how this will benefit staff and students. Thank you!

    • Miriam Firth

      Thank you, Siobhan, There are so many brilliant people working towards improvements in our Assessment practices. Thank you for your support and feedback in our endeavours. It is much appreciated!

  5. Barry Cooper

    Flexible assessment sounds like a whole lot of extra work for assessors, e.g. designing different assessments, ensuring parity between different types of assessment, and putting different assessments together into a marks grid. How does this square with the President’s instruction to minimise assessment as far as possible?

  6. Cris Bloomfield

    There’s some interesting work being done in the pre-University system in the US around assessment which is harnessing generative AI.

    K12 educators are able to save time by leveraging AI to create formative assessments aligned to a desired learning objective, grade level, subject, and standard. It will be complemented by Adaptive Testing to better understand each student’s needs and the ability to then track student progress thanks to standards-aligned assessment items created by generative AI.

    See https://www.powerschool.com/news/powerschool-announces-collaboration-with-microsoft-azure-openai-service-to-provide-personalized-learning-at-scale-in-k-12-education/

  7. Vikas

    Miriam is a real superstar for the University, great blog 🙂

    • Miriam Firth

      Thank you, Vikas Shah. What a kind reply to the Viewpoint 🙂


Submit a Comment

Comments submitted without your name and email address will not be approved or published on Viewpoint. Your name will be visible when published but your email address will not.

Required fields are marked *


Enter your @manchester.ac.uk email address to be notified of new Viewpoint posts.

* Please enter an email address