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Rethinking assessment – from grades to micro-credentials

Currently our education system is dominated by a grades-based approach to assessment - but is this the best approach (from an educational perspective)?

Whether it is a mark (e.g. 73%) or a grade classification (e.g. A, B, D, etc.; or Higher Distinction, Distinction, etc.) we falsely assume that grades are valid and reliable, though there is clear evidence that they are not (e.g. Mockler, 2018; Sherwood, 2020).

Perhaps more importantly the grade tells us very little about what a student actually knows or can do. A mark of 80% is clearly better than a mark of 50%, but it tells us very little about why it is better. What does the student with 80% know that the one with 50% doesn’t? What can s/he do that the student with the lower grade can’t do. We don’t know. We just know that in some sense s/he is better at the subject being assessed, without having any understanding of what the differences are in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills or dispositions (i.e. competences).

In contrast, well designed micro-credentials (open digital badges) should tell you specifically about a person’s competences. They are “a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality or interest”. Of course, micro-credentials can be poorly designed, in the same way that traditional marking criteria can be. The critical differences are that a well-designed micro-credential provides you with much more information about a person’s competences than a grade and that they can be used to document a wider range of competences than traditional forms of assessment.

So what might moving from traditional grading systems to micro-credentials look like in practice?

A typical assignment for an undergraduate course might have a rubric that includes the criteria provided in Figure 1.

Figure 1        Extract from a traditional rubric
Example of traditional rubric

Whilst the marker will identify which of the statements in the rubric the assignments aligns with (as illustrated in Figure 2), what will be recorded is a mark. In this example the assignment might be awarded 15 for Criterion 1.1, 13 for Criterion 1.2, 7 for Criterion 2.1, and 10 for Criterion 2.2, resulting in a total of 45 out of 60 (75%) which is equivalent to a Distinction.

Figure 2        Example of marking against the traditional rubric
Example of marking on traditional rubric

Figure 3 shows what this rubric might look like if a micro-credentialing approach were being adopted. In this example Criterion 2.1 in the traditional rubric has had to be split up into three separate criteria in the new micro-credentialing rubric. Often micro-credentials require a higher degree of specificity than is evident in traditional rubrics.

Figure 3 The rubric in Figure 1 converted from grading to micro-credentialing
Example micro-credential rubric Part 1Example Micro-credential rubric Part 2

When marking against this rubric the marker will still decide which of the criteria descriptors the assignment aligns with. However, what will be recorded is a set of badges. Assuming the same assignment as marked in Figure 2 the result would be:

Understanding the Literature - Knows about BadgeUnderstanding the Literature - Understands BadgeEvaluating the Literature - Understands Badge
Grammar - Applies BadgeAPA Referencing - Applies BadgeAccessible writing - Applies Badge

In this example, the marker cannot award any ‘Consistently applies’ badges, as these are awarded based on the student having obtained a predefined number of ‘Demonstrated’ badges for that aspect of the rubric.

This micro-credentialing approach may cause challenges for systems that currently rely on grades to indicate how a student has performed on a course. How do you know whether a student has passed the course, or achieved a distinction? One solution would be to specify which badges need to have been achieved in order to pass the course (or to awarded a distinction). However, this misses the point. A distinction tells you less about a student’s competences than their full set of badges. In moving to micro-credentialing you need to shift your mindset away from abstract notions such as pass or distinction and focus on what the competences are that a student needs to have consistently demonstrated in order to be deemed competent in their chosen field.

This in turn requires a shift in thinking about your assessment. Does your assessment actually address the competences that students need to achieve? Does it provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate those competences? This of course also raises the question about the extent to which your teaching focus on those competences in order to support the students’ success.

Micro-credentialing provides much more specific information about a student’s competences, and is likely to enhance the focus on what needs to be taught and assessed. The approach also reminds students what they need to achieve in order to succeed in a much more explicit way than a grade on an assignment. However, it also requires a major shift in mindset, a significant effort to develop the micro-credentials’ rubrics and ensure that your teaching aligns with them, and may require changes to the admin systems that you currently use to record student performance.

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