Embracing flexibility in assessment to enhance higher-order thinking

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Dr Lynette Pretorius

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Dr Lynette Pretorius is an award-winning educator and researcher in the fields of academic language, literacy, research skills, and research methodologies. 

Innovations in assessment task design are essential if we as educators are to encourage our students to see assessment as a learning process, rather than just a means towards a grade. In a recent study I did with some of my colleagues from accounting, we developed a flexible assessment regime designed to bolster students’ higher-order thinking skills, particularly critical thinking, reflection, and self-directed learning. We did this by giving students the option to choose how to complete their assessment during the semester, kind of like a “choose your own adventure” assessment regime.

In the paper we wrote, we describe how we developed optional critical thinking tasks for a core second-year undergraduate accounting unit. Our assessment regime gave students autonomy to choose whether to invest time and effort into optional tasks. In this way, students were allowed to take control of their learning trajectory throughout the semester. Their choice affected the way the assessments were weighted in the unit, as shown below. It is important to note that we wanted to ensure that students were not deterred from choosing to attempt the optional tasks because of any perceived risks. As such, students’ final overall grades depended either on just the two compulsory tasks or on all four assessments, whichever was higher.

Choice 1 (completion of all four tasks)Choice 2 (completion of only the two compulsory tasks)
Answering teacher-developed pre-lecture quiz questions10%Not applicable
Students developing their own critical thinking questions for the tutorial sessions15%Not applicable
Compulsory coursework tasks15%20%
Compulsory exam60%80%
Flexible assessment regime

The design of the optional assessment tasks encouraged students to reflect on their learning needs, question their existing knowledge, and identify gaps in their understanding. In this way, we hoped to promote a deeper level of engagement with the content and foster a more active learning experience. The critical thinking questions were used in tutorials in a peer-learning environment, allowing students to work together in groups to find answers to the questions they had generated. This helped to foster shared learning.

A large proportion of the cohort in our study chose to complete the optional tasks, with two-thirds of the cohort thinking that a flexible assessment regime was a “very good” or “good” idea by the end of the semester. Students who completed the optional tasks had a 12% higher grade than those who chose to only complete the compulsory tasks. Qualitative data from the students also highlighted that students realised they had improved their higher-order thinking, particularly their critical thinking ability and their reflection skills.

It was interesting to see that several students complained that it would be better if the teacher just gave them the answers to the questions, instead of encouraging students to discover the answers for themselves. In particular, they thought that critical thinking was not necessary in accounting. Students also thought that the flexible assessment regime did not affect the grades they ultimately received, despite the clear quantitative difference in grades mentioned earlier. This indicates that students may not have yet made the connection that improved higher-order thinking such as critical thinking helped them in other tasks such as the final exam. It also highlights that students could not necessarily make the connection that critical thinking can enhance the applicability of their content knowledge in accounting. For accounting students, higher-order thinking such as critical thinking is important for several reasons, including:

  • It helps students solve accounting problems by enabling them to analyse problems, identify causes, and come up with effective solutions. The discipline content taught in the unit we adapted, for example, includes cost-volume-profit analysis, necessitating critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • It encourages informed decision-making. Effective graduates from this unit would need higher-order thinking to be able to make thoughtful and reasoned management decisions related to cost behaviours and projections.
  • It fosters students’ capacity to adapt and innovate in constantly evolving contexts. Using higher-order thinking allows students to learn how to critically think about a situation, assess their knowledge, and creatively apply their skills in an environment where variables related to things such as costs, cost behaviours, and cost allocations are constantly changing.

Our study, therefore, highlights that it is important for educators to explain the relevance of the higher-order thinking skills they are fostering in their classrooms to the disciplinary field more broadly.

In summary, the flexible assessment regime in our study was carefully crafted to not only assess students’ understanding but also to actively engage them in the process of learning. By requiring students to generate questions and seek answers collaboratively, these tasks were instrumental in promoting self-reflection, problem-solving, and critical thinking, which are key components of higher-order thinking​​. Other educators may choose to use a similar strategy and encourage their students to choose their own assessment adventure, thereby fostering deeper learning and student engagement.

Questions to ponder

How can flexible assessment be adapted to different disciplinary fields?

In what ways can educators ensure that flexible assessment regimes are equitable and inclusive for all students, regardless of their backgrounds?

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