Sunday, June 14, 2009

Flexible learning and assessment

One of the areas I am interested in learning more about is how flexibility impacts on assessment. As students' profiles and needs change and the number of communication tools expand, educators are called upon to be to be more flexible in their approach to assessment. But how do we do that?

Spoiled for choice
It seems to me that the options for assessment are limitless. Gone are the days when the only forms of assessment were essays and exams. Now we can use video, online quizzes, blogs, interactive presentations...the list goes on. But assessment isn't just about the tools we use but how the assessment measures the outcomes or objectives of the course. It may be 'cool' to use some trendy new online quiz that captures students' attention, but if it is not aligned with course outcomes, then it has no use as an assessment tool.

Students taking control of their learning
Flexibility is about student focused education and learning. The natural development of this is student focused assessment. We can do this in a variety of ways including self and peer assessment, reflection, portfolio, and student-negotiated learning plans. Flexible assessment also includes more logistical decisions about time frames and grades.

This flexibility has to take into consideration how students see themselves as learners. Are they prepared to take responsibility for their own learning? It may not be appropriate to have flexible assessment for students who have just entered a course as new learners. But as they become more aware of themselves as learners and their learning style, then they can take on the 'freedom' that flexible assessment allows.

Working with students in a way that encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning and learning outcomes can be challenging. So we need to think about the scaffolding and support structures that students require until they become more independent in their role of learner. I think of the baby when he starts to walk. At first the parent carries him, then holds his hand as he makes his first steps. The baby progresses to leading reins and eventually walks independent of his parent and starts to run about the place.

Responding to students' needs
To my mind, flexibility in assessment is about responding to students' individual learning needs as well as needs of the curriculum. The key is making assessment relevant to the learner. Students are far more likely to learn, remember and value work that has relevancy and application than an assessment that they are made to do for the sake of it. At the same time, the assessment has to be aligned to the learning outcomes.

Probably one of the most effective assessment I ever gave was to third year undergraduate midwifery students. I required them to submit a professional portfolio. It was a lot of hard work (for them as learners and myself as marker) but they really appreciated it because they needed a portfolio as registered midwives. In other words, it was authentic ie it had real meaning for the students.

How to give marks
You also need to think about how you mark individualized assessment, provide consistency and fairness. I really enjoy giving students assessments that hinge on personal reflection. This allows student to talk about their own personal practice and learning. But I find it extremely hard to mark - how do you put a 'value' on someone's very personal experiences? To manage this, it is important for educators to do their ground work - put rubrics in place and always link assessment back to course outcomes or objectives.

What I have learned about flexible assessment.
  • Flexible assessment is not about the tools we use.
  • Assessment must be aligned with course outcomes or objectives.
  • Assessment must be relevant or authentic.
  • Students need to be supported to recognize their learning styles and needs when they develop their own assessment criteria.
What do you think flexible assessment means and requires? Have you had any experience of flexible assessment either as a educator or student? What is in it for the educator - doesn't it mean a lot of extra work?


Asafu, J. (2001). Flexible assessment in a business course. Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

Australian National Training Authority. (2002). Assessment and Online Teaching Australian Flexible Learning Quick Guide Series. Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

Hallas, J. (2008). Rethinking teaching and assessment strategies for flexible learning
environments. In Hello! Where are you in the landscape of educational technology? Proceedings ascilite Melbourne 2008. Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

Mueller, J. (2008). What is authentic assessment? Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

The Higher Education Academy. (2009). Constructive Alignment - and why it is important to the learning process. Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

Wood, L., & Smith, G. (no date). Flexible Assessment. Retrieved 14 June, 2009, from

Image: 'Reflections' johnrite


Cathy said...

Hi Sarah, Jennifer introduced us. I am a student in her summer IT class and am learning to blog. I have done pediatric nursing (12 years) and was a primary care NP (15 years) before doing consulting in pediatric mental health for 4 years. I am back in school to get a Masters in Elementary Education. Your very last question in Flexible learning and assessment got me to thinking. I have never had any experience in flexible learning or assessment, but if I expect students to work hard, should I also not model that by working hard. And if flexible assessment is the way to go, then I should just prepare myself to plan to work as hard as my students.

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Cathy

Great to hear from you & good luck with your course.

I totally agree with your comments-of course tutors have to role model a work ethic etc. I guess what I was trying to get at is: does this degree of individual flexible approach mean a workload that we cannot manage eg if you have a class of 50 or more, how much of an individual approach can we take within the constraints of working in an educational institution? We talk about this but how practical is it considering educators very heavy workload?