Making Take-Home Assessment Work

Assessment - a word that holds so much power. For some students, assessments motivate them to do better but for others, the thought of any tests can be pretty nerve-racking.

The curriculum, the teaching and learning activities would have been planned by lecturers prior to the assessment to ensure that assessment types and strategies would be appropriate to assess students’ achievements of the learning outcomes. However, research has shown that what students generally focus on first is the opposite – they often pay attention to the assessments first and then focus their learning on what they think they would be assessed upon. As such, it is really important to consider assessments during the design of the curriculum and not later. This “issue” of assessment became even more crucial when teaching and learning activities pivoted online during the COVID-19 pandemic. This also meant that assessments had to be moved online, but in a way that ensured they were still fairly assessing students’ achievement of the learning outcomes.

For example, this meant that the second-year marketing subject had to be switched from the traditional time-fixed final exam component to a more flexible format which was a “Take Home Final Examination”. It was also vital to think about the types of assessments students were used to, as the shift to online learning was already a new experience for many. Therefore, a major change in the type of assessment could be stressful given the situation. Research has found that assessment and learning cannot be viewed as separate activities, emphasizing that assessment-related activities are vital in ensuring that learning is successful. Hence, it is imperative that the learning activities are taken into consideration when designing assessments and vice versa, in order to create a supportive and aligned teaching-learning environment for students.

To this end, references were made to the final examination on what was expected, examples of assessments and how those assessments were graded was shared. These were all incorporated into the teaching and learning activities throughout the semester. Students were constantly reminded during tutorial activities to consider how they would approach questions that were discussed, if the questions appeared in their final exam. It was crucial to highlight to students that when it came to take home assessments, it was not so much about obtaining the right answer, but rather the thought process involved in coming up with the answer, i.e. the ability to draw information and evaluate different information, that would ultimately lead to a higher grade. Students were reminded that they had to demonstrate critical thinking in their answers.

Past research has also shown that the approach to learning is highly influenced by students’ perception of the learning environment, especially the assessment task. Thus, if teaching and learning activities emphasize links to the assessment as well as critical thinking skills required, students would be more likely to be “trapped” – in a good way - into learning and achieving the desired learning outcomes. As such, formative assessments and in-class activities become quite important in supporting their learning and eventually leading up to them being independent, critical learners.

Take-home assessment has its benefits. First and foremost, quality, diversity and especially inclusivity are important considerations in teaching as students have differing abilities and come from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, the environment surrounding teaching and learning activities should be a safe environment for all types of students and efforts should be made to reduce the barriers that students with different abilities and from different backgrounds may face. In situations like this, having a fixed-time examination would be unfair to students who may have learning challenges, be in different time zones or have poor internet connectivity. Therefore, switching to a more flexible take-home assessment format provides a more inclusive approach to the assessment as students have a longer time to complete it and can do it at their own pace. However, rote learning or merely copying and pasting answers can be a major issue with online assessments. Therefore, a well-designed take-home assessment, which puts less emphasis on what students can remember and instead focuses on assessing higher order skills such as the ability to evaluate or synthesize information is a much better assessment option.

Another benefit from take-home assessment is that it is more authentic as students are given the time to think about the question, research relevant materials, and synthesize information from different sources before presenting their own answers and justifications – this has much more relevance to the real-world. These would also be the skills that they would need to use at work, thus making take home assessments much more valuable in its authenticity.

So how can a take-home assessment be designed in ways that make it work? Well, here are some important things to consider:
• Set clear expectations (e.g. clear instructions on how students should tackle the take home exam, including basic things like word count, format etc.). Provide as much information as possible to students, especially with regards to grading expectations. Samples of written work, or guidance on how to look for and synthesize information throughout the semester to sharpen their critical thinking skills would be helpful. It cannot be assumed that these are skills that students are already equipped with; rather these skills must be cultivated throughout the teaching and learning process.
• Set application-based questions so that students would not able to simply “Google” the answers. Students should be asked to apply their knowledge to a new context using their own examples.
• The marking rubrics should be adjusted so that more emphasis is given to parts that require application or synthesizing of information and less on the ability to recall information. This is something that should be clearly communicated with students during the semester.

Take-home assessments clearly have some obvious benefits. However, these benefits can only be gained if the types of questions posed, the format, and the level students are at are carefully considered while designing them. Equally important is the open and constant communication that helps students ease into the new form of assessments as they develop a better understanding of what the expectations are. To sum up, 3Cs when designing and implementing take home assessments are important - Clarity, Critical Thinking, Communication). Create clear assessment questions that incorporate critical thinking skills and communicate this clearly to the students.

Dr Simran Kaur Nvinderjit Singh
Sunway University Business School