It’s all about the assessment: In 2026 we should have separated formative and summative assessment. In breaking the covalent bond between these two unequal twins we allow each to do it’s proper job, unencumbered by the other.
I recently asked my students why they were not engaging with all the wonderful and innovative formative assessment that I had made available for them; couldn’t they see that doing this material during the course would help them in their learning and make the revision process later on a breeze?
The answer was no: they had a summative assessment in a different module and that was the only objective currently on their radar. So it seems that students view the collection of modules they are doing as a linear track, with the next summative assessment dominating their horizon. The next one in the sequence looms large once the previous has been completed. In this landscape, summative assessment (and it’s role as feedback) takes a back seat. Students see it as a luxury rather than a necessity. We try to mitigate by providing skills matrices as road maps that indicate where feedback inform subsequent assessments, but these seem to fall through the cracks between the modules.
So how do we dissect apart assessment and feedback? In the current model we have individual 20 credit modules containing some formative feedback, a little in course assessment and a final examination period in semester 3 (see figure below). Students see the sequence of summative assessment at the programme level but ignore the important formative tasks. While we might provide a little formative feedback in semester 3 this is largely revision, focusing on the upcoming exam and merely reinforces the exam driven culture they have had since A level.
Truly programme level assessment could be one solution. In this scenario we could deliver 120 credits in semester 1 and 2 unencumbered by the distraction of summative assessments. Instead a series of formative assessments could be provided to enable deeper learning of the material; these could be simple required elements to give a small carrot to encourage completion. The semester three examination periods could be used to assess all credits. But instead of a one-to-one link between module and exam we should reduce the number of exams and increase cross topic synoptic questions, testing more accurately for critical analysis and synthesis skills.
In the programme level model we would significantly reduce the amount of summative assessment. Since we would be assessing all the learning outcomes of the modules in one single period, examinations need not be dominated by essay writing under controlled conditions but could include practical tests, presentations, group work, posters, dissertations , mini projects videos etc. Depending how and when assessment was scheduled, time could be freed up to deliver more material that sits outside the conventional programme, such as placements, volunteering and enterprise modules.
The above is a one year semester plan, but we could be more radical, shifting formative assessment to the end of the second year, or even just the final year. This would create a number of issue to be addressed, including progression and students being out of the summative assessment environment for a long period. But if teaching and learning are underpinned by fit-for-purpose formative assessment, summative assessments blocks at the end of year (or end of degree!) need not be a shock. We should free formative assessment and it’s feedback from the shackles of summative exams!