Assessment as a driver for transformational change in HE

Author/Producer Prof David Nicol
Published in Newsletter No 10, Spring 2008
Date Published 28 February 2008
Pages 3


An Article outlining how re-engineering assessemnt practices can help overcome three major challenges in Higher Education today



Of the many developments taking place in higher education today, three stand out as being especially challenging (i) higher teaching workloads brought about by increasing class sizes, modularisation and resource constraints (ii) the gradual shift from teacher-driven models of learning to more student-centred models and (iii) the rapid pace of technological change.

How do we manage these developments in a way that maximises benefit, not only to the student but also to the institution? Rather than tackling each area individually we should identify some key process that, if harnessed, could act as a lever to manage all three areas simultaneously. What would be the characteristics of such a process? Firstly, it should have a wide-ranging influence on educational and organisational activities. Secondly, it should directly influence the way teachers and students interact and hence the balance of responsibility for learning. Thirdly, it should properly channel the application of new technologies.

The REAP Project

The Re-engineering Assessment Practices (REAP) project funded by the Scottish Funding Council under its e-Learning Transformation Programme identified assessment as the core driver for transformational change, see

Assessment consumes a large proportion of staff time in HE and it is the major bottleneck, especially when class sizes are large and assessment follows a traditional delivery model. In this scenario, teacher workload (marking and feedback) is directly proportional to student numbers. Assessment is also the crucial interface between the student and teacher or institution. It defines the balance of power and responsibility in learning and it influences how students perceive and act out their role.

Rethinking assessment

REAP involved a rethinking of both the definition of assessment and the teacher-student relationship in assessment. Instead of viewing assessment as something the teacher does, assessment is conceptualised as a collaborative process where students share responsibility with peers, staff and the institution. A key assumption underpinning REAP is that students are already monitoring, self-assessing and regulating their own learning and that the purpose of HE is to build on and strengthen this capacity.

Nineteen large-enrolment first-year modules (from 160-900 students) were redesigned supported by technology across three Scottish HE Institutions. The redesigns involved different disciplines and combinations of technologies, including podcasts, blogs, electronic voting systems, feedback software, intelligent homework systems and VLE tools.

Design Principles

Eleven assessment principles were specified in REAP and used by teachers to guide module redesigns (see Table 1). The principles include ideas such as actively sharing learning goals and criteria with students, ensuring time and effort on learning tasks and the provision of regular opportunities for peer and self-generated feedback (Nicol, 2007a).

While each redesign had to incorporate some REAP principles (to maintain fidelity with the pedagogy), the ways in which those principles were implemented differed depending on the disciplinary and teaching context – a tight-loose approach to implementation. For example, a self-assessment technique that works in first year pharmacy might not be appropriate for psychology.

Also, the more responsibility students have in the implementation of a principle the more empowering the educational experience. For example, having students formulate assessment criteria for a learning task is more empowering than just giving them a printed criteria list. Digital technologies were only applied if they could effectively support the kinds of assessment redesigns this new thinking required.

The Principles of Assessment Design
  1. capture sufficient study time and effort in and out of class
  2. distribute students’ effort evenly across topics and weeks
  3. engage students in deep not just shallow learning activities
  4. communicate clear and high expectations to students
  1. engage students actively with goals, criteria and standards for learning tasks
  2. facilitate opportunities for self assessment and reflection in learning
  3. deliver feedback that helps students self-correct
  4. provide opportunities for feedback dialogue (peer and tutor-student)
  5. encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem
  6. provide opportunities to apply what is learned to new tasks
  7. yield information that teachers can use to help shape teaching
Based on Gibbs and Simpson (2004) and Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006)

Table 1: Principles of Assessment Design

Improved learning

When assessment was restructured in relation to REAP principles, significant benefits were evidenced. In one first year psychology class, a teacher was able to organise rich and regular peer feedback to 560 students on a series of online essay writing tasks. He also provided frequent opportunities for self-assessment. Lectures were reduced by 50%, students spent more ‘time-on-task’ and the mean exam marks increased from 51.1% to 57.4%. Many students produced online work at second and third year standard.

In an engineering class with 250 students, teachers were able to halve homework marking (a saving of 102 hours) without any drop in exam performance. They provided three types of feedback in class (computer, peer and teacher) using electronic voting technology and they orchestrated increased out of class activities using online tests and an online homework system. The time saved was used to increase personal tutor-student contact.

Students became more self-reliant, seeking feedback and support from each other online rather than just from the teacher. In some redesigns students spontaneously formed learning communities online.


The REAP project has provided ‘proof of concept’ that rethinking assessment can address the problems of large classes, the need to support a move to learner-centred education and technological change. Significant learning gains have been shown across a diverse range of courses and disciplinary contexts and across more than one institution. Also, the REAP design principles have been developed, refined and embedded in institutional policies and quality enhancement processes (Nicol, 2007b).

Key References

Gibbs, G. & Simpson, C. (2004) Conditions under which assessment supports students’ learning, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1, 3-31.

Nicol, D, J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D (2006), Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218 (available on request).

Nicol, D. (2007a), Assessment for learner self-regulation: Enhancing achievement in the first year using learning technologies, Submitted to Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education (available on request).

Nicol, D. (2007b). Principles of good assessment and feedback: Theory and practice. From the REAP International Online Conference on Assessment Design for Learner Responsibility, 29th-31st May, 2007. Principles_of_good_assessment_and_feedback.pdf

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