While exploring various models of assessment and feedback in recent months, an opportunity presented itself to gain some expert perspectives on these topics. I recently met Rachel Forsyth, author of the book Confident Assessment in Higher Education, at the 2023 Conference on Engaged Learning at Elon University. Rachel has an extensive background in higher education and is currently a project manager at Lund University in Sweden. She is an active member of the Researching, Advancing, Inspiring Student Engagement (RAISE) network and editor-in-chief of the network’s Student Engagement in Higher Education Journal

Rachel Forsyth kindly agreed to be interviewed and provide us with her perspectives on assessment and feedback. My interview with Rachel explored her background in education, her path to writing her book on assessment, and her take on assessment and feedback practices. The interview is divided into two blog posts, each containing extracted portions of the interview that directly speak to faculty interested in understanding and improving assessment and feedback.  

Aaron Trocki (AT): What is your current professional role? How are you working to move higher education forward regarding assessment and feedback practices? 

Rachel Forsyth (RF): I’ve actually worked in the UK until 2021. I was then head of [the faculty] development unit in a large teaching-focused university. I’m currently a project leader at Lund University in Sweden, which is a research-intensive university. A big change for me in many ways, but I’m really enjoying that. I’m reviewing the impact of digital tools on teaching and assessment, and how we support faculty to develop their practices in relation, particularly in relation to digital [tools]. It’s really hard to separate out the difference between using digital tools and using anything else. You still have to understand the basics. That’s what I’m doing at the moment. It’s really interesting. 

AT: Talk to us about historical or typical assessment practices you have seen in higher education and what you would like to see changed or adopted. 

RF: I think one really interesting thing about that kind of question is that everybody can think of a really bad assessment experience they’ve had. With a bit of prompting, they might think of a good one too. When you talk about assessment, people will always tell you very quickly about something terrible, where they got belittled or they didn’t understand what to do or the teacher was horrible. Everyone’s got one, at least. What I would like to see really is not that any particular technique, task, tool, or anything gets changed, but what I’d really like to see happen is that we have full transparency about assessment so that it is purposefully designed and organized; that grading criteria are clear, and that feedback is purposeful. In order for that to happen, faculty members need to really understand why they’re doing it, and then they should design their own approaches to achieve those purposes. I don’t think it’s my role to tell anybody what they should do. 

I think faculty members should understand what they need to do to actively select something that works for them. That’s what I’d like to see happen, that people don’t just reach for what happened in the course last time someone taught it, or last time they taught it, or what’s happened to them. They actually go out and say, “Yep, this is what I want to assess, and I think this is the best way of doing it.” There isn’t a right way to do it. Teaching involves professional judgment. That’s what I think we should be preparing people to use.  

AT: In your book, you used the term “effective assessment task.” What does an effective assessment task look like? What does it accomplish? I know there might be some overlap in what you just said. 

RF: Well, I think it follows on really neatly from that. Because the obvious follow on is that an effective assessment task is one that a faculty member chooses. It’s got to be valid, reliable, and equitable. A valid task tests the intended learning outcomes. They need to be clear as well. That’s a circle and iterative process we need to go through. That’s valid. It’s doing what it says it does. A reliable task will lead to similar outcomes; however it gets tackled or however it gets graded will end up in the same kind of profile of outcomes. I’m thinking about grades, but also how things help students to progress in the future, in that sense too. An equitable one—all students should have equal access to that task. That sounds obvious, but I think one thing we’ve learned from the last years, particularly the last three years since the Black Lives Matter movement really got going, is that we cannot assume that everything is equally accessible to all students. 

All of us have different experiences and we need to find out what’s equitable. There are many, many hidden norms and tacit assumptions in the way we describe and manage assessments that we need to examine. I’ve got an example of this. If you set a common task, like an essay, and say to the student, write me an essay on something. Does every student know what you’re expecting to see, what kinds of sources you’re looking for? What constitutes independent work? For us as faculty members, I think one thing I’ve learned from talking to students is that that might not be obvious to students. What that might mean is that their first experience of our assessment is quite negative. We’ll say, “Oh, it’s a learning experience to fail or to get a low grade.” That’s not how it’ll feel to them. 

Is it also hidden information that you can fail? We set you up to fail because we haven’t explained things properly. I do think that it’s fine to fail, and students can fail and learn from that. 

I think equity is something that we need to talk to students about a lot and ask them whether things were effective for them. It’s effective for students if they’ve achieved the learning outcomes and they understand what they’ve learned from that in a bigger sense. I don’t think we talk about that. I’m sure some people do, but it’s easy not to talk about that because we make a lot of assumptions. An effective task is valid, reliable, and equitable, and none of those is as easy as they seem. 

AT: Always easy to say, hard to execute. I do appreciate the listening to students and student-centeredness of your response. Excellent. How do faculty members design effective assessments? What resources are available to faculty? 

RF: I think this is quite a challenging area because people are very scared of changing anything in assessment. Because it matters to students, and it matters to the university or the college what outcome students have. It can feel a lot safer to stick with what people have always done and not examine too much whether it is valid, reliable, and equitable. This is thinking about how do faculty feel comfortable with making those decisions? What purpose is this going to achieve? They need to think about the many ways in which a set of learning outcomes could be achieved, and then select something. I think it’s important that faculty would like to see the students’ work, that they feel proud of what students have done. That’s pretty important. Something they’d like to grade, something which helps the students to succeed. 

It needs to fit into the wider picture of their bachelor’s degree or their master’s degree. How does this fit? It’s not very helpful if everybody says, “Oh, let’s change the assessment and do a presentation.” Or everyone does a set of math problems or whatever. We’ve got this broader aim for the students. They think they’re studying for a bachelor’s degree; we think they’re studying the one module that we’re teaching them, or whatever the right terminology is. You might really want to do it one way, but actually it doesn’t quite fit. It’s thinking about that, and then also thinking about how much work it’s going to require. 

We could all think of some fantastic assignment where the students have to spend, I don’t know, a thousand hours and we have to spend two hundred hours grading it… But that’s silly. We have to do other things too. What help is available? I think it’s surprisingly limited because I don’t think there’s enough discussion about it. Everybody should be seeking out courses or workshops, reading that they can do to help them feel confident in doing these things and making good decisions. Like anything else, the more you do it, the quicker it gets. If you come to me with a question about your assessment, I will probably just ask you a few questions about how your course works, how many students there are, how often you see them. All these sorts of things. Of course, I’ve come up with a few ideas because I’ve done it so many times. That’s the support you need, really. 

You need to be able to discuss with somebody—it could be your colleagues. I do want to be student-focused, but I think students have much less experience with this. It’s better to use them to ask how their previous experiences of assessment have been, rather than expect them to be really heavily involved in design. It’s hard for them to think through all the aspects that need to be thought about with assessment design, and that’s just not where they are in their learning. But they should be consulted about how they feel about assessments they’ve had before, and that can be really helpful. Talking, that’s usually my answer to everything. Being able to talk to people, but also seeing examples of good assessments.  

To summarize part one of this interview, Rachel shared her recommendation that faculty use their professional judgment to develop valid, reliable, and equitable assessments. Effective assessments are those that faculty will want to grade and should be designed around realistic expectations for students and faculty. Communication with other faculty and students is a key practice to designing these effective assessments. In the next part of the interview (coming soon to the blog), Rachel shares her thoughts on feedback practices and technology, including artificial intelligence. 

Aaron Trocki is an Associate Professor of Mathematics at Elon University. He is the CEL Scholar for 2023-2024 and is focusing on models of assessment and feedback outside of traditional grading assumptions and approaches.

How to Cite this Post

Trocki, Aaron. 2023. “Perspectives on Assessment and Feedback: Interview with Rachel Forsyth, Part 1.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. September 12, 2023. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/perspectives-on-assessment-and-feedback-interview-with-rachel-forsyth-part-1.