Sustainable assessment: an answer to the misfit between assessment, graduate qualities and life beyond study?

Opinion: Dr. Don Houston

Senior Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT


Graduate qualities, learning outcomes, assessment, judgement, capability, capacity, authority, responsibility, control: all these words and the connections between them constantly resurface in my thinking about how well we help students to prepare for the world out there.

I think we do pretty well in a lot of areas but I do have some concerns. I’ve put some of my thinking down below. Please bear with me.


The University publicly states that its bachelor degree programs aim to produce graduates who have a set of graduate qualities (GQs).

The GQs webpage says: ‘These expected graduate qualities shape the more detailed educational aims and learning outcomes which are specified for each course and topic at Flinders’. Interestingly the page doesn’t mention the connection between these qualities and assessment practices. The GQs-assessment relationship is made explicit in the University’s Assessment policy and topic Statements of Assessment Methods (SAMs) and hopefully enacted through our assessment practices.


But this is where my concern arises: it seems to me there is a gap in much assessment practice in relation to this GQ in particular:

“Who can work independently”

We expect our students to take responsibility for, and become self-reliant in, their learning and their work…. being prepared to take responsibility in the years ahead to review, update and adapt their knowledge and skills. (I added the emphasis)


Here is why:

Implicit in this GQ is the ability of graduates to make judgements about their own learning and learning needs, in other words, to assess themselves. [Note: The case I’m making is tied to the perspective of assessment as judgement, not the other assessment as testing perspective.]

But how well do we do at helping students to develop their capacity to judge or assess their current and future learning both within and beyond their course?


While we espouse the rhetoric of developing ‘critical reflective practitioners’ and lifelong learners, a question I often ask myself and others is: throughout the students’ learning experiences, who makes the judgements about the scope and quality of their learning? The answer is almost always: us – academics and other experts – not the students!


From the beginning of undergraduate studies through to the end of higher degrees by research, we judge their products and performances, we even judge their reflective pieces. It seems to me that in the area of helping students to learn to judge their own learning we’re not doing our best by them, and others agree!


David Boud and Rebeca Soler in a paper first published online in 2015 revisit an idea that is now almost a decade old – sustainable assessment – and its relationship to sustainable learning. The following quotes capture key parts of their review and proposal to move forward:

“Learning cannot be sustainable in any sense if it requires continuing information from teachers on students’ work.”

“the purpose of sustainable assessment [is] to equip students for their learning beyond the course”

“A focus on sustainable assessment involves attention being paid to … the building of capacity through all assessment acts for students to make increasingly better judgements.”

“tasks can be designed to maximise the possibility of alignment with learning outcomes, focus student attention not only on disciplinary outcomes, and also scaffold students to develop their judgements.” (p9)


Some features of sustainable assessment to be considered in the design of assessment activities can be summarised in the following questions for you to consider:

  • What particular features of the assignment and accompanying activities prompt consideration beyond the immediate task?
  • In what ways does engagement in the activity foster self-regulation?
  • How does the activity help learners meet challenges they will find in practice settings?
  • How is engagement in the current activity likely to improve the capacity of students to make effective judgements about their work in subsequent ones?
  • Are the educational benefits of the task likely to persist once the particular knowledge deployed in it can no longer be recalled?
  • Does the activity enable students to appreciate, articulate and apply standards and criteria for good work in this area?
  • Does the activity enable students to demonstrate those course-level learning outcomes that relate to preparation for learning post-graduation?


I know there is some work being done around the University to close this gap and to develop sustainable assessment. I suspect there’s more than I know about. Perhaps there are stories worth sharing. If this piece has sparked some interest, there may be the opportunities to try it.


Let’s talk.

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