Unit eAssessments, coursework, exams and ‘Learner Credits’: A new 4-part approach to assessment

by Drew Burrett
Physics Teacher and Institute of Physics Coach


It has been a long, long time since I last blogged, but the recent issues surrounding assessment and certification, both in Scotland and around the UK, have prompted a great deal of discussion.

I recently wrote a piece for the Times Education Supplement Scotland entitled ‘Exams are fundamentally flawed – let’s try something else’ , in which I argued for a fresh look at our approach to recognising the learning of young people. There are various alternatives available to us, just one of which is touched upon in the extract below.

Outside educational settings, very few systems of assessment suffer from this inflexibility. In fact, many of the SQA’s own qualifications are assessed in much more flexible, holistic ways based upon assessment judgements made by those delivering the courses.

And many “real-world” assessments involve little or no formal questioning; instead – whether in first aid, sports coaching qualifications or the UK driving test – they are founded upon participants’ ability to demonstrate skills and knowledge. Most are available on demand in a range of locations and offer flexible options to be reassessed for those participants who are unsuccessful.

Increasing numbers of qualifications are offered in a format that would be familiar to anyone who has participated in organisations such as Scouts, Guides or Boys’ Brigade: badges. These are awarded to participants who can demonstrate that they have met criteria clearly defined by the overseeing body – an approach that has been adapted and developed since 2011 by the Mozilla Foundation Open Badges platform. The platform allows individuals and organisations to set their own criteria to award badges and to group collections of badges into larger awards.

You can read the full piece here.

Having made this argument, I thought it’d be worth putting together an alternative model for assessment and certification.

I should stress that these ideas are not solely my own – they come from discussions with many of the great teachers I count myself lucky to know through Twitter, TeachMeet and Pedagoo; from visits to Canada and the USA, where I heard about systems very different to those here; and from an overwhelming sense that what we are currently doing to assess and certificate the learners in our schools isn’t good enough.

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of exams. They clearly have their place, but it shouldn’t be the only method by which learners in our schools can demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Nor am I suggesting that everything should be internally assessed, this too has its flaws, not the least of which is workload for already time-poor teachers.

My suggested system has four main components:

  1. All units at all levels should be assessed online via an eAssessment platform provided by SQA (this already exists in the form of SQA Solar). Unit assessments should be Pass/Fail, with each unit gaining SCQF points at the appropriate level. Students should attempt units when they are ready, and multiple attempts available to students to show they have achieved minimum level of competence (this could be time locked to prevent immediate retest, like the DVLA Driving theory test). This arrangement would need reliable ICT in schools, but if all schools are currently able to undertake the SNSA, then there is already existing capacity which can be built upon.
  2. Coursework components should be elective and gain students additional SCQF points. This would avoid the significant burden of multiple assignments for students following more than one science or social subjects course, allowing a single exemplification of generic skills within a subject area.
  3. All terminal exams at all levels (including N4 if there is sufficient demand) should be elective, allowing students to gain additional SCQF points. This would allow flexible routes for students to bypass exams if not required for their chosen path. Students who require Higher passes, i.e. for university entry, are still able to meet these requirements.
  4. All learners accumulate ‘learner credits’ via a unique online profile, which could be integrated into, or otherwise linked to, their Glow account. This would allow all of a learner’s achievements – not just SQA, but Prince’s Trust Achieve, John Muir Award, Duke of Edinburgh Award, Saltire Award and any of a range of other awarding bodies included in the SCQF framework – to be recorded. Each achievement could be electronically ‘tagged’ with metadata to detail the knowledge, skills and experiences underlying the award (using Mozilla Open Badges or similar). These could be cross referenced with searchable index of skills & awards which could be used by employers, FE colleges and universities to assist in candidate selection.

I don’t pretend that my proposed model is perfect. I know it would take a great deal of investment, both in terms of finances and time, to develop and bring about such a set of changes.

What I do know is that, given all that’s been going on, we are long overdue for a serious discussion about how we assess and certificate our learners. Such a discussion cannot be left to those in the walled gardens of the SQA, Education Scotland and the Scottish Government – they’re most of the reason that things are so greatly in need of reform.

What now?

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