SUMS Consultants Nick Skelton and Claire Taylor have researched the growing adoption of e-assessment in universities across the UK and beyond. Our recently published report Briefing on Digital Assessment: Opportunities to Provide Authentic, Inclusive and Engaging Assessment provides an invaluable guide for universities looking to adapt assessments for Covid-19, or to completely transform their approach. Here, Nick shares some headlines and practical advice from the report.

The Last University Process Almost Untouched by Technology

Many sectors use technology to create, deliver and grade assessments and examinations. E-assessment software has widely been adopted in language testing, admission exams, school assessment and other areas. This usage dates back 30 years.  While some UK universities experimented with e-assessment 20 years ago, adoption is slow and patchy.

In most institutions exams remained untouched by technology. The vision of hushed students in large halls with heads down over their scripts had almost totemic significance. And yet this picture had become increasingly absurd. When else are students expected to produce high-quality work scribbling on paper, without any technological aid?

From an institutional point of view, assessment is manual and laborious. Marking scales linearly with each student and is a bottleneck in the teaching process. Academic staff dread the time required for marking and see it as a major chore. The hand-written summative assessment puts major burdens on university administration.  Universities are required to print and securely hold vast amounts of paper, and above all, set aside physical space demands for examination rooms. And yet we all continued, as we always had.

Covid-19 Response: What Was Unthinkable is Suddenly Possible

Covid-19 changed everything. Many objections to change melted away in the face of the obvious requirement. Universities were still able to carry out an end-of-course assessment, with students sitting take-home exams remotely on a computer from home. Assessments were redesigned and reconsidered for a remote format. This new design stressed analysis rather than recall, thus testing degree-level skills more appropriately. Students were able to receive their degree, with a grade that reflected their work and performance. Universities demonstrated expertise, adaptability and the commitment of staff determined to offer the best for students.

The HE sector is looking more favourably on digital assessment tools. This change is likely to move faster than previously thought possible, following this enforced experiment. However, universities will look to use e-assessment more systematically. Universities undertaking digital assessment projects need to consider their objectives carefully. There may be an initial instinct to change as little as possible, but in 2020, we found that simply transposing a closed-book assessment from pen-and-paper to computer was not the best course of action. Forward-thinking institutions should use this opportunity to reconsider their whole assessment system.

The Opportunities Outweigh the Concerns

Allowing access to computers during examinations introduces new challenges and exacerbates existing concerns, such as detecting collaboration amongst students. It also provides new benefits, such as access to discipline-specific software that students will use in their careers, making assessment more relevant and engaging. Institutions can reduce paper, space and logistical headaches involved in storing and distributing scripts. Teaching staff can reduce the time required for marking, and no longer have to struggle to read handwriting. Students find the process of digital assessment more authentic and less stressful, with access to spell checkers, screen magnifiers and other accessibility tools.

Recommendations for Success

End-of-course summative assessment is a high-stakes process. It is not surprising that universities have been reluctant to change. Institutions would normally pilot changes of this magnitude slowly, but with Covid-19 this is not always possible. Although the perfect digital assessment is not yet possible, the traditional paper-based assessment is not perfect either.

We recommend:

  • Develop a clear vision for change. Ask yourself the question: what are the benefits of digital assessment which you intend to deliver?
  • A collaborative approach is essential. Engage the university leadership team. Also, you need a partnership approach between academic faculties, academic registry, IT, and the centre for learning & teaching.
  • Avoid a rigid, idealised, one-size-fits-all implementation. Instead, adopt a tight-loose approach; develop a set of shared institutional principles for how assessment should function but allow room for discipline-specific variations.
  • Engage and communicate carefully with all stakeholders. Consider the perspective of your students and lecturers and prioritise their experiences above abstract notions of the system.
  • Be very clear about what data is collected, who has access to it, how it is used and for how long it is kept. Hold a community discussion with student representatives before adoption. Be clear that people make assessment decisions, not a computer algorithm.

Further Help

To learn what good e-assessment looks like and for advice on how to achieve it, read the full paper, Briefing on Digital Assessment: Opportunities to Provide Authentic, Inclusive and Engaging Assessment

If you’d like to talk about how SUMS Consulting can help you transform the assessment process, contact the authors: and

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