Modes of assessment


On this page you will find brief descriptions of a selection of types of assessment that can be used to complement the essay. Not all of the activities listed here always require assessment: many can be used as non-assessed seminar activities.

It goes without saying that any new form of assessment needs to be implemented carefully, taking into account many things: inter alia, its relationship to institutional and/or departmental assessment policies, its compatability with the degree structure as a whole, the weighting of student workloads, logistical support, ‘quality assurance’ mechanisms, the decision about which aspects of a course are assessed (and which aren’t), the nature and timing of feedback, staff marking loads, the relationship between ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ assessment, and the extent to which an assignment tests the ‘learning outcomes’ of a course and the skills enumerated in the English Benchmarking Statement. Perhaps most important of all is the need to maintain clear lines of communication with students—to ensure that they know what is being assessed, how it is being assessed, and why. For more on this last topic, see Siobhàn Holland’s essay, ‘Communicating about Assessment’.

Short Writing Exercises

Short writing exercises can take many forms (including creative writing and seminar notes) and have many points in their favour. They can be easily peer-assessed and redrafted before being submitted to the lecturer (perhaps as part of a portfolio), they can be related to what happens in a seminar much more easily than essays, they can be used cumulatively throughout a course to build up a student’s knowledge of a topic gradually and compellingly, they can give students the opportunity to experiment with writing in ‘real world’ genres and they provide an unthreatening way into the mysteries of academic discourse for students intitimidated by the prospect of writing essays. There is a wealth of information about this assessment method on the Thinking Writing website. Other projects use similar writing exercises: the Active Reading project explores ways in which [students] might through the transformation of texts attain deep knowledge of cultural diversity and the resources of the cultural past’.


 Writing reviews of primary or secondary material can be a good method of helping students find their own way into a text, and can be a powerful alternative assignment to the essay. There is a detailed case study on the Assessment and the Expanded Text website about a course which required students to write reviews.

Creative Writing

 Assessing student work in courses on Creative Writing raises special issues, many of which are discussed in Siobhàn Holland’s English Subject Centre report, Creative Writing: A Good Practice Guide. The assessment of student creative writing, however, is no longer confined to Creative Writing courses, as many lecturers now incorporate small-scale creative writing exercises into literature courses: pastiches of particular authors or genres, adaptations or modernisations of particular works, translations of a text from one genre into another (for example, the dramatisation of a short story) and so on. In most cases, students are also required to produce a piece of reflective prose (sometimes in the form of a learning journal) explaining the thinking behind their creative work. Noting the rise of these practices, Rick Rylance has suggested that a feature of English Studies now seems to be ‘a general wish [for students and staff] to be active creators or performers rather than sober analysers of meaning’.

Seminar Notes

Getting students to submit, in note form, their own description of the give-and-take of a seminar can be a good way to encourage engagement with the topic in hand. The notes can be a freestanding, ‘formative’ exercise and also part of a portfolio. Alternatively, they can be used to supplement essays at the end of a course as a means of demonstrating a student’s commitment to seminars. An example of this practice appears on the Assessment and the Expanded Text webpages.


A portfolio for assessment normally consists of a collection of relatively small-scale assignments (e.g. short writing tasks) completed by a student during her/his progress through the course. Often, the portfolio also includes a reflective commentary of some sort (such as a learning journal), in which the student writes about the rationale behind her/his portfolio.

Learning Journals

Learning journals give students the opportunity to reflect in detail on their researches on a topic—and sometimes also on their relationships with the course topic, the lecturer and the other students. They often complement a portfolio. Because of the personal nature of learning journals, some lecturers make them a compulsory but unmarked assignment – a condition for passing the course. For an excellent introduction to learning journals and other ‘reflective’ forms of student writing, see the Thinking Writing website. A case study describing the use of ‘learning dossiers’ in detail is included on the Assessment and the Expanded Text website.

Group Project Work

Group project work overlaps with Problem-based learning. The project in question can be in a range of different media – oral, written and/or electronic. For examples of oral group projects, see the Assessment and the Expanded Text website.

Problem-Based Learning

 Problem-based Learning (‘PBL’) is ‘a student-centred approach to learning and teaching which uses student groups as the key vehicle to achieve co-operative or collaborative learning’ (Hutchings and O’Rourke). The technique is borrowed from Medicine. A student group works together on a ‘problem’ given to them by a tutor, producing a collaborative piece of work. The hope is that through solving the problem the students develop both expertise in the course topic and the ability to use their academic skills in ‘real’ life.

Work-Based Learning

Courses in which English students produce assessed tasks from within a workplace such as a library or a school are becoming increasingly popular, and have obvious links to the ‘employability agenda. In a Subject Centre Newsletter article , Ros King describes a course in which undergraduates team-teach Shakespeare to schoolchildren.

Oral Assessment

It is frequently argued that, as oral assessment tests an important transferable skill, it strengthens student ‘employability’. According to the English Benchmarking Statement, English degrees provide students with ‘ advanced literacy and communication skills and the ability to apply these in appropriate contexts, including the ability to present sustained and persuasive written and oral arguments cogently and coherently.’ An English Subject Centre event on oral assessment in 2001 saw a general consensus in favour of ‘a new emphasis on oral skills.’ Siobhàn Holland’s report of this event highlights many key issues.

Types of oral assessment include the student presentation , (given either by individuals or a group, generally within a seminar, often involving an element of peer assessment) and the viva. Less common is assessed seminar discussion, a device analysed in an English Subject Centre project case study. Alternatively, the seminar performance of individual students can be monitored across a course and gain them a small proportion (e.g. 10%) of the total mark. Another way of assessing a student’s involvement in seminar discussion is to assess seminar notes.

Marking Exercises

 Marking exercises do not strictly speaking constitute a form of assessment, but they can be very useful as part of the assessment process.

It is obviously a good thing if students faced with an upcoming assignment understand precisely what is expected of them. Requiring a seminar group to read and discuss a sheet of assessment criteria is a start—but some lecturers now go further, setting up exercises in which students get their hands dirty and apply the criteria themselves, marking sample assignments (either anonymised student work or pieces written by the lecturer). This is an excellent way of getting students (and lecturers) to think about the meaning of words such as ‘structure’, ‘analytical’ and ‘clear’. Students are also sometimes involved in setting assessment criteria. The method can be extended to involve self-assessment and peer-assessment.