Struggling and juggling: a comparison of assessment loads in research and teaching-intensive universities

Carmen Tomas, Tansy Jessop

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In spite of the rising tide of metrics in UK higher education, there has been scant attention paid to assessment loads, when evidence demonstrates that heavy demands lead to surface learning. Our study seeks to redress the situation by defining assessment loads and comparing them across research-and teaching intensive universities. We clarify the concept of ?assessment load? in response to findings about high volumes of summative assessment on modular degrees. We define assessment load across whole undergraduate degrees, according to four measures: the volume of summative assessment; volume of formative assessment; proportion of examinations to coursework; number of different varieties of assessment. All four factors contribute to the weight of an assessment load, and influence students? approaches to learning. Our research compares programme assessment data from 73 programmes in 14 UK universities, across two institutional categories. Research-intensives have higher summative assessment loads and a greater proportion of examinations; teaching-intensives have higher varieties of assessment. Formative assessment does not differ significantly across both university groups. These findings pose particular challenges for students in different parts of the sector. Our study questions the wisdom that ?more? is always better, proposing that lighter assessment loads may make room for ?slow? and deep learning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalAssessment and Evaluation in Higher Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Apr 2018


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