This section is not about the best design for exam halls, although controlled conditions are still important for validity and reliability in some assessment types. The issue here is not just the physical space but the context, the combination of cognitive, social, physical and virtual resources available to the learner, and how that context can impact on learning and assessment (Vavoula et al., 2009)

Social contexts

One area to consider is the social context or learning environment of the programme. The interactions between students and tutors, and between peers, are to some extent shaped by assessment design. Formative assessment by tutors and peers can build confidence and encourage open discussion, providing it is carefully framed as constructive and mutual dialogue. A key element of this is the explicit framing of the concepts of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in assessment briefs and grading criteria. Students who see assessment as a point in a continuing learning journey, in which failure is likely if not inevitable, may be encouraged to challenge themselves and the knowledge they discover:

“The purpose of meaningful feedback is to suggest ways to move beyond what has been achieved to a certain point and to consider how it can be done better or differently in the future… Therefore, such feedback is a process that must involve an open and positive acceptance by the student that the current piece of work is not as successful as it could be … We need to elevate the concept of failure to mean more than simply an absence of success; instead failure needs to be understood as an important pedagogical phase, particularly when engaging with complex knowledge in critical ways.” (McArthur 2014, 177)

This is not, of course, to diminish the significance of failure and its possible implications – both inside and outside the education environment. It is to create an environment that is, where appropriate, supportive of risk and its role in the extension of learning. For tips on helping students to recover from failure, see Race and Brown 2005, p122-3.

Physical contexts

Assessment design should also consider the physical space, and the implications of space design for assessment practice. Some assessment tasks require the use of specific physical spaces (for example OSCEs in health subjects, performances, or tasks involving demonstration of lab skills). Availability of these specialised spaces may have implications for the frequency and scheduling of assessments, and these implications should be balanced against the validity and reliability of the proposed task (see 1.4.4). For many assessment tasks though the physical context is of less concern; in fact, assessment practice can mirror the ‘seamless learning’ described by Sharples (2012), using technology for tasks like research, data collection, synthesis and reflection independent of physical location.

Virtual contexts

A final area to consider is the virtual space; that is, assessment in the online environment. The main considerations here are around security. Just as your classroom should be a ‘safe space’ for taking risks and testing ideas, you may also need to create equivalent safe environments for blended and distance learning. Using the virtual learning environment provided by the University (NILE) guarantees this, but the inclusion of other ‘web 2.0’ tools may not. Third party tools may require students to give personal details to register for accounts, have confusing or obstructive privacy controls, and leave assessment data at risk of deletion. If you’re unsure about the policy or technical implications of an online assessment task, check with the relevant colleagues before you proceed. Additional guidance on this is available in the Policy section.