Learning must always be assessed, otherwise how can we be sure it leads to capability, quality and higher-level performance in our profession? As the world changes around us, we must also feel assured that the ways in which we assess learning remains fit for purpose. Anita Fresson, NEBOSH Formative Assessment Manager, explores different types of assessment, how they contribute to learning…
Our world is changing. It always has and it always will but technology and unexpected events such as COVID-19 has accelerated that pace of change.
The way we educate ourselves has also changed significantly. Peer-to-peer learning has exploded thanks to online networks and resources, and formal classroom techniques are now just part of the many face-to-face, remote or self-tuition options available to us. Dee Arp, NEBOSH Chief Operating Officer, adds: “Within education we find ourselves in a post-pandemic world where there are great opportunities arising from the inspirational, creative and innovative approaches we’ve seen emerging because of Covid restrictions. Many of these approaches are now more accepted and find themselves at the core of learning, whereas previously they were only at the periphery.”
And these different learning experiences are not just connected to a variety of generations. They will also have been influenced by where in the world someone has been educated and the diversity of cultural attitudes that exist towards learning assessment.
As things change around us, it has become essential for us all to adapt and become more agile. However, agility around change is not enough. Any adaptation must be fit for purpose, fit for the times and must also match our values and the values of those we interact with. In other words, the way we adapt should not only be feasible, but also acceptable.
When it comes to education and learning, whilst methods and delivery may change there are some core principles/values which remain. These principals ensure health and safety training and qualifications – whether these are short courses or extensive high-level qualifications – are effective and learning is embedded.
For this feature, I will be looking at different types of assessment, their strengths and weaknesses and the benefits and challenges they have to offer when it comes to learning and, ultimately, equipping people with greater health and safety knowledge and expertise.
“For the first time in history, organisations need to engage employees spanning four generations. This creates an interesting challenge to satisfy the various learning styles that different generations may have become accustomed to and expect.”Dr Julie Riggs, Senior Head of Education at the British Safety Council
What Are The Options?
There are often misconceptions around the value of different methods of assessment and rather than siding with one against another, my aim here is to present a realistic picture of the options, supported at times by academic research and the viewpoint of practitioners.
The three types of assessment I will be looking at are formative, interim and summative. There are others you may have heard of, such as norm-referenced which compares a learner’s performance against others, or criterion-referenced which measures a learners performance against a specific goal or standard. However, these often fall within the three main types and formative, summative and interim are the most relevant and recognisable.
The way I always think of formative assessment is that it ‘informs’. As Dee Arp, explains: “It assesses a learner’s performance during and often throughout the learning process, helping them to understand where they need to direct their focus. From a learning provider’s perspective, it also informs them of the progress, strengths, weaknesses and so on, of the learner.”
The goal of formative assessment is multifaceted, but primarily it should facilitate the continuous monitoring of student learning and provide feedback allowing the tutor and the learner to evaluate the impact of learning, identify areas for improvement or development and further study. So formative assessment recognises that as students learn, they will experience challenges along the way and they may find it difficult to understand a concept or to grasp certain aspects.
“as things change around us, it has become essential for us all to adapt and become more agile”
I spoke to Dr Julie Riggs, Senior Head of Education at the British Safety Council, who told me: “We should always reflect on the student’s journey and how we can use formative assessments to track their understanding. Traditionally, we might evaluate a student’s performance via end-of-session tests or course evaluation forms. However, being able to track live data through tests, interactive activities, discussions and practicals will enhance both the student’s learning and the trainer’s delivery of the learning.”
“this process of reflection throughout learning encourages a stronger connection between the learner and learning partner”
Dee Arp agrees: “This process of reflection throughout learning encourages a stronger connection between the learner and learning partner and a crucial aspect of this journey is that it also enhances the learner’s skills and understanding so that they can implement what they have learned in their workplaces.”
The End Game
If formative assessment ‘informs’, then summative assessment ‘summarises’! The goal here is to evaluate learning at the end of a course, qualification or programme by comparing to a standard or benchmark.
For the learner, the outcome can be critical for professional accreditation and career progression. For the learning provider, the meta data drawn from results can be used to identify strengths and areas for improvement or development within teaching practice.
In the case of vocational qualifications, summative assessments are often highly valued by employers who see them as verification, in part, of competence and perhaps more importantly rigour. They give learners an equal chance to apply their learning to a problem. Because summative assessments take place within set parameters and time constraints, they are also often perceived as being more challenging and a more thorough test of knowledge and understanding, compared to formative assessment.
However, there are disadvantages in summative assessments if they are used to assess learning in isolation, particularly for the learner. As the often-cited research of both Professor George Wesolowsky and Moragh Paxton has highlighted, it can be argued that summative assessments only really test knowledge and recall and not the ability to analyse or apply knowledge to real world situations.
Dee Arp commented: “At NEBOSH, we have always worked hard to design vocational assessments that overcome this ‘can it be applied in the real world?’ argument. For example, our summative assessment activity for our International General Certificate, the IG1 Open Book Exam, is complimented by the IG2 Practical Assessment to provide a more accurate picture of learner understanding.”
It is easy to confuse interim assessment with formative assessment. The goal of interim assessment is to evaluate where learners are in their learning progress. However, rather than this taking place throughout the learning process, as is the case with formative, interim assessment takes place only at specific points during the course of learning.
It establishes whether learners are on track to perform well on summative assessments. Results are evaluated using a standard or benchmark.
For the learner, the outcome provides insight into which areas they could improve on, leading to further study to increase the likelihood of a favourable outcome for summative assessment. For the tutor, interim assessment informs forward planning of additional learning support to be agreed between themselves and the learner. For the educator, the meta data drawn from results can be used to identify strengths and areas for improvement or development within teaching practice.
It’s worth considering the time and resources required to develop interim assessments and the benefits gained. Research by Forefront Education in 2021 has shown that where interim assessments are used for diagnostic purposes, teachers will lean towards teaching students to simply pass the summative assessment and not, necessarily master the subject.
Which Have You Encountered?
Summative assessment is undoubtedly seen as the more traditional approach, with formative regarded as the modern, and some might argue progressive counterpart. Interim, inevitably sits somewhere nicely between the two.
What makes the different types of learning assessment particularly interesting is that they have led in many ways to a generational gap when it comes to perceived value and opinion. If we believe that as adults we build new knowledge based on previous experiences, as evidenced by Steven Elliott and others in the book Educational psychology: Effective teaching, effective learning, then we must also be mindful of different learning assessments as concepts for those formally educated in the 1960s, through to the 1990s, as well as Millennials and Generation Z, and how research has influenced teaching styles, trends and practices over time.
From traditional ‘chalk and talk’ teacher-led classroom learning to self-directed learning, the diversity of learning experiences of people working within the health and safety industry is immense.
Which is Best?
We also find ourselves in a position where there sometimes appears to be a battleground surrounding the question, which is best?
Where there certainly is consensus amongst scholars and commentators, is that formative assessment should be task orientated and that, of course, is where it works well with health and safety. So, rather than focusing attention solely on the ‘product’ (such as achievement of a qualification certificate) and being forced into a choice between summative, interim or formative, we should be mindful of the needs of the learner and those that benefit from their learning.
In my opinion, there should be no real conflict between the different assessment types. A great course or qualification can apply them all usefully, building some or all into an effective assessment framework that benefits the learner and helps to further their knowledge, expertise and learning.
As Professor of Physiology and Medical Education Jonathan Kibble said in the journal ‘Best practices in summative assessments’ in 2017: “Both summative and formative testing have important effects on student learning, and careful attention on the selection and deployment of each is needed.”
“we should be mindful of the needs of the learner and those that benefit from their learning”
Most importantly, we should recognise it is the learning impact that counts. As teaching trends, philosophies and underpinning ideologies evolve, the health and safety industry is making a positive and visible shift away from knowledge acquisition into knowledge application. And it is this impact and application that counts and that will ensure people are protected at work to return safe and healthy to their families at the end of every day.
Dee Arp adds: “While it’s great to award qualifications as evidenced by summative assessments, the key is the quality of the learning and preparing students to confidently represent our profession and make a difference in workplaces around the world.”
Dr Julie Riggs commented: “The learning environment is changing with less formal, tutor-led classroom delivery, to more student-led learning, self-directed study, discovery and researching, a major expansion of peer-to-peer learning and increased use of self-paced and self-directed content for learning, allowing learners to study and train at their own pace. These various approaches will allow students to develop knowledge beyond their textbooks or syllabus, to understand how OSH learning applies in a real-world scenario.” So, what kind of assessment is fit for a world of change? For me, the answer is simple. Assessments that are suited to the needs of learners, their learning partners and all other stakeholders, from employers and regulators to wider society. This is what counts. Keeping up with those needs means we must all learn to adapt and be more agile. That’s the world we now live in.