Assessing continuous assessment


With exams approaching and continuous assessment becoming an increasingly standard method of judging academic prowess, Bríd Doherty and Eoghan Dockrell debate the merits of long-term evaluation for third-level students


In life you are continuously being assessed. By your peers, parents, virtually every other category of people you come in contact with and possibly by God. The particular methods of assessment vary. It may not come in the structured form of midterms and MCQs, but unless you’re like Tom Hanks’ character on that deserted island in Castaway, you’ll always have someone assessing you (and even he had Wilson).

Being continuously assessed is inescapable in most spheres of human existence, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing. This is equally true when it comes to the provision of education, as continuous assessment can actually have a debilitating effect on the learning process.

In recent years there has been a gradual move by higher education institutions worldwide to adopt and expand on a continuous assessment approach. The old and outdated all-or-nothing style finals are fast becoming a distant memory. Forests have been felled on the subject and the unanimous verdict is that continuous assessment is the way forward. Some in the academic community even see it as a kind of silver bullet that will improve standards. This position cannot be blindly followed and needs to be challenged, because there are serious shortcomings to continuous assessment.

There are, of course, some advantages and you don’t have to look any further than the opposing piece on this page to get a picture of what the benefits of this method are. Nonetheless, the negative aspects simply outweigh the positives.

Splitting an academic year in two and dividing exams between Christmas and summer has its merit. Most modules only last for the duration of one semester and having an examination soon after the last lecture of term makes a lot of sense. There is no point in waiting until the summer when it has been months since you last looked at notes on that subject. However, that is where I draw the line.

Continuous assessment becomes too continuous for me when I scroll down through a module description and check how I’ll be assessed. If a module has an essay, a presentation and an end of semester exam, I’m less inclined to take it. Why? Because by week four the date is set for my presentation; by week six I receive the title of an essay that is due on the last day of term and which I can’t really start working on until I’ve gotten the presentation out of the way. Then on top of all that, I have to study for an end-of-semester exam.

The problem is that I’m in quasi-exam mode for the duration of the module.

The whole thing is a haze of cramming and rushing to finish essays and presentations and generally being under constant pressure. The result is that instead of learning and having a real interest in the subject, I end up being more focused on impending deadlines.

Furthermore, students aren’t robots. I can’t flick a switch and say to myself that I only have to study half as hard in X module because I already have 50 per cent done. In reality, what happens is that you probably spend somewhere around the same amount of time and effort studying for every subject, regardless of whether it’s a 100 per cent or 50 per cent exam.

Until mankind evolves to a point where we can accurately calculate exactly how much time should be afforded to subjects based on what percentage is left in the end of semester exam, modules that have more continuous assessment elements will always receive disproportionately more attention. In short, they’re more time consuming, but you won’t be getting any extra reward for the extra work.

Another argument against continuous assessment is that some university authorities might see it as a relatively easy solution to improving standards. Other (perhaps more costly) measures, such as reducing lecture sizes and putting more emphasis on participation and engagement in tutorials and seminars, could be more effective but don’t receive as much consideration as they deserve.

One of the strongest points against continuous assessment is the decision to have 50/50 or 30/70 distributions between the penultimate and final years of a degree. This means that Arts and other three-year degree students have but twelve short months at UCD before they have to start worrying about results that will contribute to their degree. For many students, this realisation only dawns on them midway through second year. But too late, you’ve got a quarter of your degree completed and there is no turning back.

No, we’re not yet living in an Orwellian university with helicopters chasing us down the concourse, cameras in the library and lecturers continuously assessing every letter we type or word we write. That scenario is at the extreme end of the continuous assessment spectrum, but we could be heading there sooner than you think. Simply put, what is required is less assessing and more learning. Right now, the former is negatively affecting the latter and the correct balance needs to be restored.

– Eoghan Dockrell



There has been an age-long debate about methods of assessment used in universities. Across UCD itself both continuous assessment and exam-only assessment are employed. The advantages of continuous assessment over exam-only assessment are clear as continuous assessment gives students a better chance of achieving their full potential. Students get a better-rounded education by consistently being put to work, rather than laying idle for an entire semester only to caffeinate themselves and cram for two weeks prior to exams.

The introduction of continuous assessment has led to a widespread negative attitude towards exam-only assessment among students and academics. It is often punctuated by the question: “Why must the work and teachings of an entire semester be condensed into a single two-hour exam?”

This is a question that has been bothering educational practitioners since the dawn of education itself. Can one short examination adequately assess what a student has learnt over a long period? How would a student who happens to fall ill and could not write the final examination be graded?

To answer these questions, educational measurement experts and educational policymakers have come up with the concept of continuous assessment. Many universities all over the world have adopted this approach in assessing learners’ achievement in many subject areas. In Namibia for instance, the Ministry of Basic Education and Culture have asked that continuous assessment be implemented throughout each tier of the educational system.

But what exactly does continuous assessment entail? As continuous assessment takes place over a period of time, the student is assessed throughout the learning process rather than only after it has ended. This means that it is possible to track the improvement of the learner and easily identify areas where they are having difficulties. As such, more directed support and guidance is available, and the learner is given more opportunities to improve.

My own personal experience of assessment has predominantly been exam-only and I have little to say about it that’s positive. As a law student, my entire degree depends on approximately two weeks of the year: one week of exams at Christmas and one in the summer. This is not an adequate means of teaching students the law, as it takes the practicality out of the subject. It also means that we face into these vitally important exams without having received any prior feedback or guidance.

One of the clear advantages of continuous assessment is its guidance-oriented nature.  Continuous assessment is an approach that captures the full range of a learner’s performance. As such, teachers and administrators are able to comprehensively assess learners’ progress. This system also gives sufficient time for educators to provide feedback and for students to correct problems.

Another advantage of continuous assessment is that it places lecturers and tutors at the centre of all assessment, so that they are properly involved in the education of their students. They are not merely giving lectures and then marking an exam at the end of the semester. They are gradually guiding their students through the subject and are constantly aware of their progress. This thus encourages more teacher participation in the overall assessment or grading of his or her learners.

One of the other important aspects of continuous assessment is the availability of valid and reliable test and essay questions that can be used throughout a semester. However, it is also necessary that the results of continuous assessment be handed back within a reasonable time frame.

I have written three essays over the course of my degree and didn’t receive the results of any of them until I had completed the semester. It seemed a wasted opportunity for constructive feedback, which would have helped me to prepare for my exams and polish my writing skills.

The continuous assessment approach has many advantages over the more condensed method. It makes assessment more meaningful and more representative of the learners’ overall abilities. To use an exam-only method of assessment is not a reflection of a student’s ability, rather it is a depiction of how well they can cram at the end of a semester.

Is that really what education should be about? Is the ability to memorise an entire semester of work and write it back out again really what university educators are training their students for? I don’t think so.

UCD and its students would greatly benefit if continuous assessment were brought in across the board. It would give each and every student a fair and equal chance. It would also ensure that students are constantly engaging with their course and are actively learning rather than lying idle and then staging an epic cram at the end of the semester.

– Bríd Doherty