Advantages and disadvantages of continuous assessment
As we have seen above, continuous assessment has a number of educational advantages as well as a number of disadvantages. The following lists are based on those produced by Bob Purvis of Queen Margaret College in the booklet on 'Continuous Assessment' that he wrote for CICED in 1990 - again see 'Further Reading' section.
Advantages of continuous assessment
Continuous assessment can provide much more extensive syllabus coverage than terminal assessment; indeed, in some cases (eg, competence-based courses) it covers virtually all aspects of the students' work, thus greatly increasing the face validity of the assessment process and permitting the use of tools appropriate to the workplace.
Since it allows the use of a far wider range of assessment techniques than terminal assessment, continuous assessment can be used to test a correspondingly wider range of skills, including non-cognitive skills of various types. It thus makes it easier for tutors to match their assessment methods with the learning outcomes being assessed and to step assessment through different levels.
Continuous assessment places less emphasis on pure memory (particularly comparatively short-term memory) than terminal assessment, and correspondingly more emphasis on worthwhile learning in the deepest sense of the word. True education has been described as 'what is left after the facts have been forgotten', and continuous assessment certainly facilitates such education.
As we have seen, continuous assessment encourages regular, systematic study and discourages last-minute cramming, thus rewarding students who work steadily and conscientiously throughout their courses. It also reduces the domination of both teaching and learning by the requirements of the final examinations. It is like a film, rather than a single snapshot.
By enabling on-going monitoring of student performance to take place, continuous assessment can provide early warnings of which students are having problems with a course, thus enabling appropriate remedial help to be provided in time for it to do some good.
Continuous assessment can provide early indicators of the likely performance of students, something that can be of great help to the students themselves - eg, in recognising that they have made a mistake in their choice of course and would be better transferring to another, or in helping them to make informed choices of routes and options.
Such assessment also provides an on-going picture of how individual students develop and mature as they work their way through a course, something that can again be of considerable use to both students and staff. It can also provide evidence of exactly what has been learned by a particular stage of the course, information that can prove extremely useful in cases where a student wishes to take an early exit award such as a Certificate or Diploma of Higher Education.
Continuous assessment also constitutes an extremely useful vehicle for on-going course monitoring and evaluation, providing course tutors with early warning of any problems or weaknesses, thus enabling them to take appropriate measures to improve matters.
It is generally agreed that continuous assessment reduces the intense stress that many students experience when preparing for and sitting terminal examinations - particularly so for dyslexic students or in the case of honours degrees.
Continuous assessment generally provides a more natural assessment environment that is better matched to the situations in which students will find themselves working in later life, particularly if the assessment is of the 'open-book' variety.
Disadvantages of continuous assessment
Students undergoing continuous assessment may feel that they are continually under surveillance, and that every error that they make along the way can count against them. This can give rise to a different type of stress from that which students experience as a result of terminal assessment. Indeed, to quote Derek Rowntree of the Open University, "Continuous assessment ensures that students now have ulcers as well as nervous breakdowns".
Unless continuous assessment is carefully planned and coordinated, there is a very real danger that students may be grossly over-assessed - particularly at certain times of the year, when several lecturers are asking simultaneously for assignments to be handed in.
Attempts to broaden the scope of a course may be frustrated by students gearing their study solely to the requirements of the assessment procedures, thus putting students who carry out extension studies or 'read round' their subject at a disadvantage. By itself, continuous assessment does not prevent either 'strategic' or 'surface' learning.
Continuous assessment can, if not properly managed, adversely affect the relationship between students and their tutors, with the latter being regarded with suspicion and (in some extreme cases) enmity and occasionally even introducing malpractice, as in imposing penalties for seeking help.
Students may suffer from unequal availability of resources, something that is becoming increasingly important now that they are carrying out much of their work on personal computers or 'at a distance'.
With continuous assessment, there is the perennial problem of enforcing uniform procedures such as completion dates and dealing with students who do not comply with these in a way that is seen to be fair without being either too draconian or too lax. Continuous assessment requires just as much planning as terminal assessment -more in many cases.
Assessment schemes that are claimed to be based on 'continuous assessment' may turn out to be nothing more than a series of tests or 'mini examinations'. If so, such assessments remain 'unnatural' and fail to optimise problem-solving opportunities.
Tutors need to have a high level of experience in assessment to enable them to make creative and effective use of continuous assessment (although the same could be said of terminal assessment!)