The importance of assessment in teaching and learning cannot be underestimated. But with the continued rise in the use of technology in all aspects of our lives, what method of assessment best serves the learner in reaching their goals – traditional assessment or digital assessment?
A simplistic view of traditional assessment versus digital assessment is that digital assessment is simply about removing paper from the system and delivering traditional assessments on-screen, bringing marginal benefits. However, proponents of digital assessment say that this view fails to see the art of the possible and that digital assessment brings the potential to truly transform how, when and where assessment is undertaken, improving the learner’s experience and outcomes.
For many organisations, plans to move to a fully digital experience have been accelerated by recent global events. For others, the journey is more gradual and there are many considerations and challenges for organisations to overcome along the way.
A brief history of examinations
Once upon a time, the only method for establishing how much a learner knew was an examination at the end of a course of learning.
The first country to implement a nationwide standardised test was ancient China in AD605. The purpose of the Imperial Examination, as it was called, was to select people for government positions.
In the UK, the first national examination was delivered by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate – now known as Cambridge Assessment – and took place on the 14th of December 1858.
In the 1860s, the presiding examiners would travel from Cambridge to exam centres, usually by train, wearing academic dress and carrying a locked box containing the question papers. In preparation for the examinations, students were expected to learn large amounts of information by heart, proving themselves to be excellent ‘collectors of knowledge’ when their papers were marked.
Today, many exam scripts are distributed and marked electronically, and greater importance has been placed on enabling students to demonstrate their skills in analysing and evaluating, as well as their knowledge and understanding through a greater variety of tasks.
Examinations are just one method of monitoring a student’s progress. Formative assessment techniques, the process of evaluating students’ knowledge as they learn and utilising these assessments as an intrinsic part of the learning journey, are now widely used. Adopting these techniques creates multiple opportunities to collect data about a learner’s progress at different stages of learning and in different ways.
“Education shouldn’t just be about imparting facts but more about how you handle facts.”
Best practice in assessment has been developed over many years, with underlying principles of fairness, reliability, accuracy and validity at the centre.
Learners taking high stakes assessments at the same time on the same day and with the same criteria (e.g. the same exam paper and questions) ensures consistency and enables schools, learners and awarding organisations to plan cycles of ‘exam sessions’.
Traditional assessments seek to determine what students know at the end of a topic, which can risk putting emphasis on memorisation rather than committing learning to long-term memory and deep understanding.
Learners often receive little to no feedback from traditional methods of summative high stakes testing. Equally, the right or wrong answer reveals no insight into how the learner reached their answer, or how they are thinking about the material in question.
It is often a time-limited process, meaning the result only shows a fraction of what the learner has learnt and can apply from the curriculum and plays a judgmental role rather than a developmental one.
A set exam date gives the learner ‘one chance to shine’, making it stressful for learners who may not be able to perform at their best on the day for whatever reason.
Assessments are not tailored to the learner in question, whilst the pre-determined selection of a ‘levelled’ exam paper limits the potential range of grades a learner can achieve.
The results of a standardised traditional assessment make it very difficult for an educator to adapt future material so that it can be tailored for each learner.
The logistics of standardised exam papers being distributed across a country and even Internationally increases the risk of leaked exam questions.
Assessment items are limited to questions and responses that can be expressed on paper.
The pros and cons of digital assessment
The assessment process can be enhanced by the use of rich multimedia assessment item types or even games offering a more engaging experience for the learner. For example, there is a growing trend of gamification in maths and grammar assessments.
Using a digital-first approach enables students to be tested in a way that matches the needs of employers and the job market, helping to adequately prepare learners for normal ways of working in many industries.
Online assessments can improve efficiency, as they speed up many processes such as marking and feedback, allowing teachers and examiners to re-direct more of their valuable time.
Ensuring accessibility is a crucial part of digital assessment. Exams delivered remotely can remove geographical or social barriers for students, and level the playing field for students with specific educational needs through additional accessibility tools.
With digital, there is the opportunity for assessments to be tailored to the learner through adaptive testing based on individual capability and in terms of when an assessment can be taken if learners are not all taking the same exam questions.
Remote proctoring (online invigilation) enables flexibility on where assessments can be taken – a huge benefit for learners that would otherwise struggle to get to exam centres
Digital assessment makes data on student performance readily available. This enables better analysis and continuous improvement.
Initiating a digital transformation will require investment by organisations, both in technology and in staff and student training.
If digital assessments replicate traditional assessments with learners sitting an exam at the same time, sufficient devices and power sources have to be available which can be a challenge for schools and exam centres.
There are concerns that with an increasing move to the use of technology, the art of handwriting might be lost.
Remote assessment could be stressful if learners have any technology-related issues on the day.
There is no doubt that we have seen rapid growth in the use of digital technologies across education over the last few years. If we are using technology-enhanced teaching and learning strategies, then the natural progression is to assess using the same techniques.
Digital technology has opened the door for alternatives to the traditional methods of assessment and examinations. But, in some cases, the traditional framework can’t simply be overridden by digital alternatives because the parameters of assessment, prepared before the existence of digital technology, may not allow it.
It is worth remembering that the same principles and characteristics apply when designing an effective assessment, whether traditional or digital. At the heart of the matter is always the interrelationship between the desired learning outcomes, the programme content, and the assessment strategy.
The way we shop, work, travel, listen to music and watch television has changed in the past decade, so too will the way we assess our learners. As digital assessment technology continues to develop at pace, particularly post-pandemic, new possibilities to enrich the candidate experience are being realised across the world of education and training. And rightly so, because the positives far outweigh the negatives. But, for change to be successful it is necessary to engage with all stakeholders and make the right investment at the right time.
How can we help?
With more than 35 digital item types as standard, our solutions let you go far beyond replicating paper tests to assess candidates’ skills in a relevant and realistic way. Contact us to find out more.