Towards sustainable assessment: some thoughts

Dr Peter Rushbrook, Deputy Head, Learning and Teaching at RMIT University’s School of Education shares some thoughts and references about sustainable assessment. 

image depicting a session in a workplace training centre at a major Singapore supermarket chain.

This is an image depicting a session in a workplace training centre at a major Singapore supermarket chain. The trainees are undergoing assessment of their checkout skills, including managing cash and customer service. This is a simulation but the skills learned are put into practice quickly in the demonstration store next door.

Thinking of assessment for, as and of learning (Earle, 2006), not just of learning, is no longer new. What is new are approaches to assessment that build on this basic premise to support Twenty-first century learning. Paying attention to assessment is critically important for adult learning as David Boud (2010) points out,

Assessment is a central feature of teaching and the curriculum. It powerfully frames how students learn and what students achieve.

Assessment is a process, not just an end result.

Assessment for longer term learning focuses on higher order thinking and skills, such as exercising judgment in context. It develops independent, confident practitioners ready to transition to the next phase, ready to work independently and with others to make informed judgments (Boud 2010). We need to focus not just learning how to learn, but on the subset of learning – how to assess (Boud 2000). We need to move away from multiple choice questions and away from assessors looking for answers from an answer sheet. Such practices do not reflect the increasing cognitive (Darling-Hammond, 2014) and complex psycho-social demands required of our workforce. They fail to contribute to the application of learning to contexts outside a classroom or test environment. Essentially, we need to move from narrow assessment to assessment for deeper sustained learning.

Assessment needs to do double duty: both for credentialing and learning purposes. This includes: formative assessment for learning and summative for certification; focusing on the task and developing lifelong learners; and attending to the learning process as well as the content. Assessment of this nature requires the collection of a range of forms of evidence over time to assess the understanding of a learner, as well as equipping the learner with skills to self-assess. This has profound implications for the design of learning. Boud (2010) suggests there are a number of principles of assessment which we can drawn on and adapted to our context and purpose:

  • assessment is used to engage learners in learning that is productive.
  • feedback is used to actively improve learners’ learning
  • learners and educators become responsible partners in learning and assessment
  • learners are inducted into the assessment practices and cultures of performance for work
  • assessment for learning is placed at the centre of curriculum design.
  • assessment provides inclusive and trustworthy representation of learner achievement, providing reliable evidence of performance
  • when assessment is a focus for those involved in curriculum assessment of student achievements is judged against consistent national and international standards that are subject to continuing dialogue, review and justification within professional communities

A new emphasis and direction towards workplace and other forms of blended learning and assessment (classroom, workplace and/or e-environments) in countries such as Singapore (where I am currently working on some assessment research in its Continuing Education and Training sector) signals a move away from a heavy reliance on classroom assessment, and a reimagining of the possibilities of teaching and learning practice. Outcomes through devolving assessment responsibility to learners and ‘outsourcing’ further aspects to employers and industry have the potential to increase learner employability and improve the learner experience – through carrying over into work the skills required to self-monitor developing skill sets and domain knowledge, as well as self-direct integration within new workplace contexts and communities of practice. RMIT is well on the way to exploring these possibilities within Work Integrated Learning (WIL) and similar programs, but may benefit from uniting current thinking within an overall philosophy of sustainable assessment (and learning).


Boud, D. (2010). Assessment 2010. Australian Learning and teaching Council, UTS.

Darling-Hammond, L. (Ed). (2014). Next generation assessment. Moving beyond the bubble test to support 21st century learning. Jossey-Bass.

Earle, L. (2013) Assessment as learning. Sage Publications

Earle, L. (2006). Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind. Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, assessment of learning. Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth.