Continuous assessment: the cure for all our ills?

Exam-only modules are increasingly rare in third level education in Ireland. On numerous occasions I have sat at exam board meetings only to hear extern examiners recommend that more continuous assessment (CA) should be incorporated into individual modules, and programmes generally. I have never heard those examiners say precisely why they think CA is required and I usually get the sense that the intention is to do little more than reduce the exam-time pressure on students.

Some lecturers, especially mathematicians and engineers, include some CA purely to incentivise good study habits. Doing ‘problem sets’ is a normal part of learning these subjects and the feeling among colleagues is that students will not do the problems (in a timely manner) unless those problems contribute towards the final module mark. In the jargon of modern education, the CA in this case is assessing the same learning outcomes as the final exam.

Some lecturers, myself included, use CA to assess knowledge and skills that cannot be assessed in a final, hand-written, closed-book exam. My CA typically involves some sort of computer calculation, perhaps using the Solver tool in Excel, or maybe WolframAlpha.

Of course, an unspoken purpose of CA is that having a CA component tends to reduce failure rates. Average marks in CA tend to be higher than in the final exam (and the standard deviation tends to be lower) and, in my experience, a significant number of students scrape through modules on the basis of their performance in the CA.

So is CA a good thing or a bad thing? Is it fairer and does it encourage more ‘higher order thinking’ than exams do? It’s impossible to answer this question because the CA can be anything from a short in-class test aimed at assessing a very small ‘chunk’ of material, to an essay or an oral presentation, or a group project, or even a reflective diary.

The one aspect of CA that we have to be wary of is this: In a semesterised and modularised education system in which content has, as a matter of policy, been reduced and divided up in to smaller and smaller ‘chunks’, is there a danger that the use of multiple CA components will further encourage our students to compartmentalise their knowledge and  to become so focused on clearing an increasing number of assessment hurdles of ever diminishing height, that they will end up lacking the very ‘critical thinking skills’ that we want them to develop?

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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