Assessment for long-term learning and recall

This is an interesting one in which there are plenty of different opinions and theories on the most appropriate way to assess learners.

Building a knowledge base is essential if an individual is to learn effectively. The process of learning and then assessment of that learning, formatively and summatively including providing  appropriate learner feedback, will demonstrate how effective the inputs have been to achieve the desired outcome of long-term learning and memory recall.

Daisy Christodoulou presents a persuasive case in ‘Making Good Progress’ about the need to challenge current pedagogy and assessment methodologies to ensure effective long-term learning is the key to raising standards. “No assessment system can succeed unless it is based on a clear and accurate understanding of how pupils make progress in different subjects.” (Christodoulou, D. (2016) ‘Making Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning‘, Oxford University Press, p.140)

It can be argued that a large focus of learning over the past 20 years within further education (FE) has resulted in good short-term learning but limited long-term learning. This can be demonstrated in the limited depth of skills and knowledge within significant portions of many work forces. In contrast though there are also many skilled and knowledgeable workers so we mustn’t think the education system, in general, is at fault, just elements of it.

Within the vocational sector the focus of learning has been on modularisation, which is where each module within a course or qualification is assessed separately and not holistically which would cover the entire course specification.

NVQs work-based diplomas have been the cornerstone of courses offered by the FE sector since the 1990s, however, the focus of outcomes has now changed with the introduction a few years ago of the Government’s new Apprenticeship Standards, which have end of course practical and knowledge assessments. The aim is to raise standards across all industries and with the general limited successful of the previous format (I think I am being generous here) regards long-term learning, this can only be considered a positive move for learners.

Not all training organisations will find this approach appealing as it challenges them to ensure they deliver the goods, which was quite variable in the past, with making NVQs and work-based diplomas becoming just tick box exercises for learners and assessors. This effectively cheated learners of developing long-term learning and memory recall of subject matters they were initially interested in. Hopefully it will also put an end, or at least reduce, questionable practices by some training organisations, such a 3aaa, which have recently been reported in the media.

I have selected four key summary points from a detailed study in 2008 which highlights some of the issues relating to modularisation.

Modularisation: A Summary of advantages and disadvantages


  1. “the assessment can be timed to match the point of learning within the course, making it easier for candidates to show what they know, understand and can do;
  2. a unitised approach makes it easier for students to stay on track with their studies and manage their time effectively;
  3. the assessment load is spread more evenly over two years and the pressure of an “all or nothing‟ assessment is removed;
  4. revision is more manageable;


  1. there is a danger of fragmentation of learning and lack of coherence in learning programmes due to both the methods of curriculum delivery and the assessment practices;
  2. poorly developed overview of subjects and an inability to connect discrete areas of knowledge;
  3. adopting a modular approach can disrupt the provision of a coherent and developmental course;
  4. short-term targets often dominate over longer-term goals.”

(Source: Carmen L. Vidal Rodeiro and Rita Nádas (2008) ‘Effects of modularisation‘, Cambridge Assessment)

Clearly not a one sided issue either way, however, the disadvantages are inferring that long-term learning and memory recall can certainly be an issue. This is the issue for individuals wishing to develop an insightful and long-term knowledge bank which they can recall when required: challenge many learners who have followed NVQs or work-based diploma courses and typically their understanding will be lacking after a relatively short period of time. By contrast courses assessed by more holistic examinations where a learner has to be able to link course content in a more cohesive way will, again typically, be able to recall more and be able to present a more coherent and appropriately considered reply.

The full support mechanism needs to be provided to learners throughout their learning journey to ensure that not only do they receive a qualitative and enjoyable experience but also they are well prepared for holistic end-of-course assessments, but more importantly they learn subjects and processes which will stay with them for a long-period of time and can be readily recalled. We certainly owe it to all learners that they are not cheated out of a good education – whether primary, secondary or tertiary education.

Chris Gray, 6th October 2018