Synoptic assessment

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A synoptic assessment combines two or more modules of study into a single assessment. Such an assessment may help students to make connections between modules, increase the level of student engagement and provide teaching staff with the opportunity to adopt a holistic approach to delivering modules.

The general aim of a synoptic assessment is the “undoing” of the modularisation of the curriculum. The importance of the process of learning as distinct from the outcome of learning is given more attention within this model.

How can it be used on courses where it is appropriate?

This method combines assessments over modules and across subjects. It expects students to transfer knowledge and skills and helps them see how issues and themes connect. The QAA Code of Practice ‘Section 7 – Assessment of Students’ September 2006 specifically defines it as:

“An assessment that encourages students to combine elements of their learning from different parts of a programme and to show their accumulated knowledge and understanding of a topic or subject area.  A synoptic assessment normally enables students to show their ability to integrate and apply their skills, knowledge and understanding with breadth and depth in the subject. It can help to test a student’s capability of applying the knowledge and understanding gained in one part of a programme to increase their understanding in other parts of the programme, or across the programme as a whole.”

Synoptic assessment is well regarded within HE with plenty of evidence from research papers and good practice case-studies.  Many students like it and find it relevant. When carefully designed into the curriculum, it enhances links between modules and reduces “compartmentalised” learning approaches. It encourages deep learning through its emphasis on vertical and horizontal integration of the topics being studied.

It can carefully be used to assess two (or more) modules at one level (either across one or two semesters). Synoptic assessment suits project work, which may take place over the academic year but care needs to be taken to make sure the project terms and aims can encompass the breadth of the learning outcomes that need to be assessed.

Synoptic assessment requires careful planning and coordination across module teams. Where synoptic assessment fails is when it is not built in at the course design phase and where module teams don’t communicate well enough with each other.

Module learning outcomes not assessed by the synoptic method will need to be addressed by another form of summative assessment in the time frame of the module itself.

Key points to consider:

  • Synoptic assessment must be carefully built in at course design stage.
  • It requires good and on-going communications between course teams to ensure success.
  • It requires clear communication of instructions and expectations.
  • Where certain module learning outcomes  are not assessed by the synoptic method, they will need to be addressed by another form of summative assessment attached to that module.
  • Retake arrangements must be specified at the design stage and carefully mapped against learning outcomes.

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