Susan Kenyon, Ruth Phillips and Bláthnáit Robinson. 28 April 2021


Assessment can make or break our students’ experience, influencing attainment, outcomes and satisfaction, at University and beyond.  In this blog, we present the results of a student-led evaluation of a two-stage, authentic assessment design.  We consider the aims of the assessment, before providing feedback and feedforward to others considering authentic assessment for learning in their Politics/International Relations programmes. 

Assessments are powerful tools for learning. 

When we get it right, assessments are the starting point of student learning.  When we design our assessments to be for learning, students gain skills and understanding, as well as knowledge, through the process of completing the assessment.  

We can also design our assessments to include a central role for feedback for learning.  By carefully selecting two or more individual summative assessments that build on each other, we can enter a feedback dialogue with our students.  Not only are we giving feedback to deepen our students’ knowledge, understanding and skills, which can support their future learning and feedforward to the next assessment, but students are giving feedback on their learning to us.  We are learning what we need to do, as teachers, to enhance student learning, from our students’ perspective. 

Assessments can provide work-related learning, when we design our assessments to replicate tasks and performance standards that our students may encounter in the workplace, outside of their studies.  We are gifting our students not just a degree, but a future career.  This can help us to create an assessment that our students want to engage with

Such ‘authentic’ assessment promote graduates’ employability, but it does much more than this.  By preparing our students to be successful after graduation, we are giving the powerful message that they can and will achieve; that they deserve to achieve. 

When I designed my new Transport: Politics and Society module, I had all of this in mind.  Inspired in part by the Conceive-Design-Implement-Operate (CDIO) pedagogy, which was developed to support Engineering education, I designed my module content and delivery around a two-step assessment, which aimed to replicate a task that Politics graduates might expect in their future workplace.  

At the outset of the module, students were supported to identify a transport problem that was important to them, or their communities.  They were tasked with investigating this issue and all learning on the module was designed to support this.  

Halfway through the module, their first assessment was to present a verbal briefing on their case study, to a decision maker of their choosing.  Their second assessment, at the end of the module, was a written options and decision briefing paper, on the same case study, to the same decision maker.  I based these assessments on the guidance to civil servants, given in ‘Working with Ministers’. 

This assessment approach, with the learning and teaching strategy that it demands, has been very well received by the two cohorts who have experienced the module so far and attainment has been high. 

Attendance and engagement were high, throughout the module.  We hypothesise a number of reasons for this. 

  • Students perceived a need to attend, because every session was directly related to the assessment, in content and skills developed. 
  • Students felt heavily invested in the module, because they were investigating an issue that is important to them/their communities and which built on their interests and expertise. 
  • Students recognised the value of the skills that they were learning, beyond ‘just’ passing an assessment. 
  • Students enjoyed actively applying their learning.  Students reported reading more than in other modules, because they discussed their reading in class and were taught how to relate each piece directly to their assessment. 


But students have reported that the principal benefit has been the positive impact upon their well-being.  These are summarised as follows. 

  • Community and a sense of belonging developed, because ideological differences between students reduced.  Many Politics students arrive at University with strong party-political allegiances and these often frame their learning.  However, in this module, the topic was introduced as a neutral ground, with most students having minimal ideas of how transport related to their personal politics. This enabled students to have open discussions, without their party alliances framing the discussions.  Community was further developed through the emphasis on sharing personal experiences of transport; and students found common ground through the experience of navigating a new assessment together, where all began the task on a level playing field. 
  • The assessment brought academic and home life together.  Students were able to talk with their university friends about home, and their home friends/family about university, unifying these previously disparate worlds. 
  • Students gained confidence.  To normalise public speaking, in preparation for the assessment, each week every student was assigned a reading, which they had to summarise, verbally, for the class and take questions.  This gave a focused space to develop confidence with public speaking and discussing ideas.  
  • Students felt included and learnt the value of inclusion.  Normalising student participation and having a framework where not just the most vocal students had their space to speak, from the start, initiated a dynamic where ideas could be shared equally.  Linked to this, this learning approach lead students to discuss their ideas with those who were outside of their natural social group, so they gained new perspectives on both the topic and others’ lived experiences. Because 2 or 3 students read the same piece, students heard different interpretations of the same data, increasing their exposure to diverse opinions and experiences. 
  • Students felt comfortable and safe.  Having a space where everyone would be talking gave students the confidence to talk – and because 2 or 3 students read the same piece, students knew that if they couldn't talk, because they were too anxious, there would be someone else who had done the same reading, to support them.
  • Students were able to apply feedback literacy skills and were able to engage in feedback dialogue in other modules. 
  • Students felt challenged, but supported.  The idea of a presentation in front of your classmates is daunting, but with this module, the option to prerecord or to do the presentation to a smaller group ensured that students with anxiety or other mental health issues were included.  If the option to write an assessment, instead of presenting, were given, it might feed into the idea that mental health is a barrier to engagement and achievement, reinforcing a deficit model of mental health.  The slight adjustments in this module gave students the ability to develop their presentation skills and engage with the module in the same way as their peers, but in a more manageable way, so that their mental health issues were not a barrier. 

Dr Susan Kenyon is Faculty Director of Learning and Teaching and Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.  Her module, Transport: Politics and Society is available to Level 5 students as part of the Politics and International Relations framework.  Ruth Phillips and Bláthnáit Robinson are Level 6 BA (Hons) Politics students at Canterbury Christ Church University. ​

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