Many years ago, when I was a lecturer on the Teaching Qualification in Further Educational the University of Stirling, I co-ordinated a module on assessment and feedback in higher education. In my reading around for the topic I came across an article by David Boud (2010) on sustainable assessment. Boud proposed that assessment practices in HE should not exclusively focus on learning outcomes for the short term achievement of a qualification, but that assessment practices needed to become much more aligned to the long-term sustainability of individual learning. This, Boud explains, is about fulfilling the learners’ current needs without compromising their future learning needs and echoes the then current definition of sustainable development as meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations.

His approach makes a lot of sense, because in contemporary society graduates are likely to find themselves on a steep learning trajectory all through their working lives (and hopefully beyond). So it is entirely consistent with the values of lifelong learning. One key element in such sustainable assessment is to progressively reduce students’ dependence on teachers to judge their work and provide feedback. This could be done in a number of ways and Boud focuses on two approaches which I have adopted and encouraged others to use ever since, namely self and peer assessment.

What is particularly striking about engaging students in assessing their own and each other’s work is that often for the first time they are asked to engage in depth with the criteria against which these judgements can be made. In fact, involving students in articulating such criteria and then devising tasks in which they actively apply them to their own and others’ work gives them a much more active and meaningful understanding of what is required, how their own work measures up and how they can further develop. Early evidence for this can, for example, be found in Graham Gibbs (1999, pp43-44) well known example of redesigning an engineering course to include self-assessed tasks.

Of course, using self and peer assessment to award grades can be highly problematic for many reasons and I usually recommend that, at least initially, staff and students become familiar with such practices through formative, rather than summative, application.

In a more recent article on this, Boud and Soler (2016) reviewed the development, application and uptake of sustainable assessment practices and found that the concepts and practices have proved useful in a range of contexts, but that there is still much work to be done. A key point from this review for me is that these practices need to be embedded throughout the student experience and that patchy or occasional use is not sufficient for true sustainability to be achieved.

If you would like to discuss any of this in more depth or have some help in designing sustainable assessment as an integral part of your programme, then please do get in touch.

Boud, D. (2010, originally 2000) Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society, Studies in Continuing Education, 22:2, 151-167, DOI: 10.1080/713695728

Boud, D. & Rebeca Soler (2016) Sustainable assessment revisited, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41:3, 400-413, DOI:10.1080/02602938.2015.1018133

Gibbs, G., 1999. Using Assessment Strategically to Change the Way Students. Assessment matters in higher education, 41.