Just because PebblePad can be used in this way, does this mean this is a suitable option? A formal exam is often justified because this is one of few ways in which an examiner can be assured that the work has been completed solely by the student. The format, however, tends to have limitations of its own. When a student is isolated in place and time, they are restricted to the recall of memorised content. There is little opportunity to research and extend their ideas, nor is there sufficient time to really reflect on or think through their response. Further, the skills required for this type of assessment are different. Students will do better if they have a good memory and can rote learn, and also if they can write or type quickly. It also helps if a student is able relax in this context. Many students become stressed by formal exams and are unable to perform well, even though they may have engaged with and learnt the required content during the study period. Because of these parameters, formal exams have developed into a genre of their own. Questions may be multiple choice, short answer or essay but they are usually quite dependent on remembering facts. If we looked at exams through the ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ lens, most exam questions belong in the lower end of the continuum and relate to ‘remembering’.
Rethinking assessment design
A low Bloom’s Taxonomy question might be suitable and even necessary in an invigilated exam, but it isn’t such a useful device for testing in a non-supervised setting. We know that if students are asked to respond to this type of question when they are working independently or online, they are more likely to ‘cheat’ by using reference material anyway and/or look for ways to give themselves longer than the allocated time. Sometimes we try and close this loophole by asking students (or another person) to declare that the work was completed under the specified conditions, or even by using technology that locks down Internet access during the time, but this isn’t really very practical or effective. Rather than trying to deliver the regular exam in an open format, it makes far more sense to redesign the assessment task so that it is suited to the independent setting and, more importantly, it provides an authentic means for the student to demonstrate their learning and understanding of content.
Imagine you have been asked to convert your formal exam into an alternative online task with very short notice. Given our current situation, you probably don’t have to imagine this! You might keep the same or similar Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs) for your assessment but you will need to redesign what you ask the students to do. Firstly, you will need to acknowledge that students will have access to reference materials that they will use to help them answer your questions. Rather than seeing this as a negative, you could actually incorporate it into your task. You could make the first part of your task a research component. Rather than leaving students unguided to wander around the Internet, you might like to scaffold the process by giving them keywords or even hyperlinks to key reference sources. This could be in the first part of the assessment task workbook in PebblePad or a pre-task template. You can also provide response blocks for students to record key information and ideas. This may include recording ‘facts’, but it should also be their synthesis of concepts and/or interpretation of information. Then the actual writing or response task could ask the student to apply the knowledge they have to a particular context. This might be one or more hypothetical scenarios that you give them or perhaps a case study. You could provide this as a written piece, but the multimodal nature of PebblePad means that this could include images, an audio byte or a video. Alternatively, you might ask the student to apply the information themselves and develop a synthesised response. They could write their own hypothetical scenario or put together a sequence that shows how theory works in practice. The advantage of asking students to work with information in this way is that it asks them show that they understand the concepts and can apply the theory to a context. This raises the activity on the Bloom’s continuum and ensures that googling for ‘the answer’ isn’t going to work for this assessment task.
PebblePad offers educators versatility & flexibility in assessment design.
Of course, this task is somewhat different, and it becomes more of a hybrid between a regular assignment and an exam. The difference might be that this task does have a shorter time between the students seeing the question/s and being asked to produce a response. This format is more like an ‘open-book’ exam or even a ‘take home’ exam. A time restricted task can ensure that students focus on the task and respond promptly, but you also need to be aware that working at home needs some flexibility, as students have different computer access, family commitments etc. Typically, this type of task may have a window of a day or so, rather than set hours. Overly tight timeframes will simply cause unnecessary angst for students who have less capacity to cope with stringent restrictions.
PebblePad is an amazing pedagogical tool as it enables solutions for teaching and learning without prescribing any set approach. However, this plasticity comes with a great responsibility for educators to design tasks carefully and be mindful of outcomes and consequences, both intentional and unintentional. The most important aspect of any assessment task is that it is fit for purpose and will allow learners to demonstrate what they have learnt, what they know and how they can apply it.
If you'd like to hear more about how PebblePad can support learning and assessment online, then why not visit our PebbleVision video channel. From the flipped classroom to extra and co-curricular learning, through to personal tutoring and authentic assessment, the channel has been designed to spark ideas to help you achieve whatever is at the top of your teaching, learning and assessment ‘ambition-ometer’. Especially helpful in the current climate when we’re all looking for inspiration and new ideas.