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In response to the need for a revised approach to assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic, St George’s is implementing a six-point approach which includes:  

  • Removing some assessments and replacing on-campus exams with coursework or alternative online assessments wherever possible (including online vivas for research degrees) 

  • Removing rigid time constraints for remaining online exams wherever possible 

  • Deferral of some key practical assessments for which alternative assessment is not appropriate 

  • Extension of registration periods where necessary for research or placements 

  • Controlling for Covid-19 effects on assessment by analysing marks and considering, in consultation with External Examiners at Exam Boards: 

  • whether a whole cohort of marks needs to be adjusted up or down when compared to previous years 

  • whether a higher classification is appropriate for students within the borderline zone specified in our regulations 

  • Revised mitigating circumstances policy that recognises the impact of Covid-19 on your ability to prepare for and undertake assessments. 

The sections that follow give more information about these six measures.  They also address recommendations made by the Students’ Union and concerns some of you have raised on Unitu.   

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How have decisions been made?

Work to ensure students can progress and graduate under current constraints is overseen by an Education Continuity Group which meets twice a week and reports to the University’s Senior Leadership Team, making recommendations and receiving direction.  The Group, chaired by the Deputy Principal (Education), includes staff with expertise across all educational areas and student representation from the Students’ Union’s Vice President (Education & Welfare). 

We consider proposals brought to us from staff and SU representatives on behalf of you all. These may have been concerns raised through Unitu, email or the SU survey so many of you engaged with.  Thank you for sharing your views with us and we have done our best to address them in our decision-making. 

One of the early tasks for the Education Continuity group was to develop a set of exceptional regulations intended to ensure that students can progress and graduate on schedule wherever possible.  It also agreed guidance parameters for the design of alternative assessments and established an Assessment Amendment Committee, again with student representation, to monitor and approve assessment changes.  Approvals started a month ago and many cohorts now have clarity about the assessments that they will be asked to undertake.  

The principles underpinning our exceptional regulations and the decisions we have made are: 

  • Assessment enables a student to demonstrate achievement of the learning outcomes for their programme of study.   

  • Students will be treated fairly and equitably; with recognition of the challenges they face under current restrictions. 

  • Academic standards will be maintained.   

  • Patient safety is paramount (clinical programmes).  

  • Assessment processes will be applied consistently and equitably, with reliability, validity and fairness.  

  • Our obligations to professional, statutory and regulatory bodies will continue to be fulfilled. 

Alternative assessments

Until at least July 2020, all assessments are being taken online rather than face-to-face.  Since this decision was made, programme teams have reviewed all remaining assessments and worked within an adjusted assessment framework to determine the ways in which they can assess students effectively and fairly.    

In some cases, assessments are being removed if it is possible to use other sources of evidence to conclude that students have met the learning outcomes that those assessments test.  In other cases, examinations have been replaced by additional coursework or redesigned to be suitable for taking online. This has sometimes involved separating out elements previously combined in one exam, such as Single Best Answer (SBA) and essays, to ensure that each element can be fairly assessed online.  

Removing rigid time restraints for exams wherever possible

We have radically modified our approach so that, wherever possible, examinations are not rigidly time constrained.  For example, examination papers which require long answer or essay style answers can be downloaded when the examination opens and answers submitted at any point within the subsequent 24 hours.  Presentations have been switched to submission of recordings into Panopto or live presentation via Microsoft Teams or Big Blue Button.    

Time constraints are retained for exams such as Single Best Answer (SBA) and Multiple Choice Questions (MCQ) that do not require extended written responses and for which the examined content would not be suited to a less time-restricted approach. Apart from MBBS (which uses a national medicine-specific online exams platform, with provision of real-time support for technical difficulties), these exams are taken using Canvas, can be activated at any time during a 24 hour window and have 25% additional time built in.   In all instances where additional individual arrangements such as extra time are part of a statement of support needs, these will also be applied. 

This flexibility acknowledges possible difficulties with technology (e.g.  varying speed of internet connection, use of tablets or phone instead of laptop/desktop), personal circumstances (e.g. interruption, childcare, lack of dedicated study space), and recognition that students are undertaking their assessment during an unprecedented global pandemic.   

For MBBS, where alignment to national norms for time-constrained fixed-time exams is important, the programme team is ensuring fairness in other ways:  

  • The national medicine online exams platform enables provision of real-time support to anyone who experiences technical difficulties and award of additional time during the assessment if required to ensure they can complete their exam.   

  • The team will work individually with students coping with challenging personal circumstances, e.g. student parents and carers, to discuss options and consider issues in advance.   For students whose circumstances require deferral, an additional (third) opportunity to sit will be made available. 

Deferral of practical assessments

In some cases the learning you would have been expected to demonstrate in a practical assessment is being partly or fully assessed by the design of an alternative assessment online.  Where this is not appropriate and practical assessment is not possible within the usual assessment period, we will ensure that this is not a barrier to progression.   

A set of principles to underpin our actions is being considered by the Education Continuity Group and more information on arrangements for deferred assessments will follow. 

The key principles that will guide our approach to taking decisions about progression are that:  

  • Students will not be disadvantaged if we are unable to schedule assessments that students would ordinarily be required to pass as a condition of progression to the next level or stage of their programme. 

  • Equally, students will not be disadvantaged if unable to complete placements (either placement hours and/or placement assessments) that they would ordinarily be required to complete as a condition of progression. 

As you have already read, we have redesigned or removed assessments so that they can be attempted by students in the current academic year.  Where placements were curtailed by the closure of sites, we will, wherever possible, not require these placements to be completed at a later date.  In instances where they do need to be completed we will allow students to progress carrying an additional requirement (either to make up placement time or complete assessments).  Where this happens, the overall burden on students must be manageable. 

Extensions and the Maximum Period of Registration

We are aware that for students on some programmes who are undertaking research projects or have substantial placement hours to complete, delays resulting from the Covid-19 disruption may extend beyond your expected completion date.  

You should not be concerned that extensions to your study period due to Covid-19 will take you beyond your maximum period of registration.  If this situation arises we will ensure that your maximum period of registration is extended.  This will be done on a programme by programme basis with no need to apply, and programme teams will keep you informed.  There will be no additional tuition or other fees for extensions required as a result of the Covid-19 restrictions.   

Details of the Maximum Period of Registration

Covid-19 Mitigating Circumstances

In recognition of concerns you may have about the impact of Covid-19 on your ability to prepare for and undertake your assessments, claims for mitigating circumstances in relation to the following will be accepted: 

  • Caring responsibilities for children and for others. 

  • Illness and/or a requirement to self-isolate 

  • Problems with your internet connection or computer/device. 

  • Difficulties with time zones or travel arrangements in relation to Covid-19, in particular for international students.  

During the current period you will NOT need to provide medical evidence for any Mitigating Circumstances claim that you make, whether it is due to Covid-19 or another circumstance.  

Where claims are accepted, a standard extension of two weeks will be given for coursework (or longer, as needed, for students in particularly difficult circumstances).  For exams/timed assessments, you are not obligated to enter if you feel unprepared and will be permitted to sit the exam at the next available opportunity for an uncapped mark. 

All claims will be considered by a panel in the usual way.

Controlling for Covid-19 effects on assessment

We will control for Covid-19 effects on assessment by analysing marks and considering, in consultation with External Examiners at Exam Boards: 

  • whether a whole cohort of marks needs to be adjusted up or down when compared to previous years 

  • whether a higher classification is appropriate for students within the borderline zone specified in our regulations 

Our assessment teams have always used analytics (e.g. comparison across years, against performance in previous years and across mark ranges within year, where relevant in exams) to check whether provisional marks, at the cohort level, are consistent with expected performance.  Our approach to marking and moderation, including the use of mark adjustments and/or scaling, if appropriate and justified, is then applied in consultation with our external examiners.   

For example, if student performance in previous years in equivalent assessments is significantly greater than their performance in 2020, we will scale marks upwards to acknowledge the fact that student achievement this year may have been affected.    

For honours degree programmes, our algorithm for deciding the class of degree awarded to each student includes a tolerance zone within which, as an example, students with a weighted average of 68.5% or above will be considered for a first-class honours degree. This tolerance zone provides safeguards to ensure that students achieve awards which reflect their overall achievement.   This year, in addition to the automatic promotion (see below), exam boards will give additional careful consideration to the performance of individual students whose average falls within the ‘tolerance zone’ or who have performed significantly less well in their assessments since March. 

For information, the relevant section in our general regulations is Clause 7.6 on Page 14: 

A borderline zone of 1% will be used at all the BSc degree classification boundaries, effectively operating at 68.5% (First class honours), 58.5% (Second class honours (upper division)), 48.5% (Second class honours (lower division)) and 38.5% (Third class honours) due to rounding. If a student's overall degree mark falls within this borderline zone and the student has achieved at least 60 credits worth of module marks at QAA level 6 in the higher classification band (that is, higher than 70, 60, 50 or 40, as appropriate), the higher degree classification will be automatically awarded. In the case of BSc degrees where fewer than 120 credits at QAA level 6 are given a % grading, the number of graded credits the student must achieve at QAA level 6 (from the total number of available graded credits) in the higher classification band, in order to be automatically awarded the higher classification, will be stipulated in the Scheme of Assessment for the programme. 

Responses to Students’ Union proposals & student concerns

In developing our framework for assessments we have benefitted considerably from the contributions made by the Student Union, feedback they have gathered from students across the university, and perspectives of students on Unitu.   We have considered them carefully and, although we have not been able to agree to all the suggestions made, they have been immensely helpful, stimulating discussion and informing our decisions.  Below we outline how we have done this in relation to key proposals from the Students’ Union and other concerns raised on Unitu. 

Proposal 1 – delay assessments 

This SU proposal to delay all exams and assessments by two weeks between mid-April and mid-June received approval from two thirds of respondents.   

From the outset of the assessment redesign that started a month ago, programme teams sought to delay assessments wherever they could.   Following the SU proposal to the Education Continuity Group, programmes who had not pushed back assessments were asked to consider the feasibility of doing so.   From the responses, it was clear to the Education Group that for some programmes delays would not be in students’ best interest and would jeopardise timely graduation/progression. 

For example, Board of Examiner meetings are timed to ensure that all assessments and resits are completed, marked, analysed and ratified in time for graduation and progression to the next academic year.  For some programmes, moving assessments back would mean having to reschedule Board of Examiner meetings.  These involve a large number of staff, including External Examiners (who are also subsumed with their own university’s Covid-19 disruption) and are arranged a year in advance.  It is simply not feasible to reschedule them for later in the year.   

Moving back assessments without moving Exam Boards would mean concentrating more assessments into a shorter time frame, risking bunching of assessments.   It is already hard to space out assessments sufficiently to prevent students being overburdened, and we would not want to exacerbate this by bringing any closer together.   

Proposal 2 – no detriment policy 

This SU proposal received 94% approval from respondents and over 600 students signed a petition asking for the introduction of a no detriment policy at St George’s.   

Broadly ‘no detriment’ is taken to mean that students will not be penalised for any dip in their academic performance relating to assessments undertaken during the Covid-19 mitigation arrangements.  Although a variety of approaches by universities are given the “no detriment” label, the scheme students had in mind was one designed such that students ’ final grades cannot fall below those for their academic performance prior to assessments taken during the period of disruption.   

In two of its early meetings, the Education Continuation Group discussed at length the possibility of introducing such a scheme across St George’s programmes.  We concluded that the approach we are taking is a more effective and equitable way of providing safeguards to our students in these difficult times and protecting the standard of the St George’s degree and the requirements of external bodies for the following reasons:  

  • Universities that have adopted this approach have excluded professionally accredited programmes because, for healthcare programmes, issues of patient safety are paramount.  This applies not only to final assessments and graduation, but also progression points during the course, where students in later years would be expected to have more independence on placements than earlier on.  This consideration is particularly relevant to St George’s because most of our undergraduate programmes are professionally accredited.   

  • The approach assumes that students will have completed a significant proportion of their assessments before the coronavirus disruptions and that modules are qualitatively similar. Our programmes vary greatly in terms of the way in which assessments are scheduled throughout the year.  In some cases, students will have completed relatively few assessments.   It is not valid for the marks for a small subset of assessments to determine the overall outcome for the student, or for taught postgraduate students with a substantial research component to have degree outcomes extrapolated from performance in taught modules only.   

  • We have a responsibility to our regulator, the Office for Students, and to the professional bodies that accredit our healthcare programmes, to the maintain the standard of our degrees. We are not persuaded that a no detriment rule, as it might apply at St George’s, provides the assurances regarding the standards that the OfS would expect of us.  We also do not agree that it is in the long-term interests of our current students to adopt policies that might imply that standards were set differently in 2020.  

  • We believe that our approach of controlling for Covid-19 effects on assessment (adjusting cohort marks after comparative analysis with previous years and using the tolerance zone of honours degree boundaries at Exam Boards in consultation with External Examiners) is fair and effective and best serves the interests of St George’s students.   

Proposal 3 – automatically discount a first failed attempt 

The Education Continuation Group considered this proposal but were unable to support it as a blanket rule for all students.  This was because it would mean that a narrowly-passing student was disadvantaged relative to a student who failed, and would have a subsequent uncapped attempt. 

The mitigating circumstances policy was considered to be preferable, being fair and equitable.   

Students who fail an assessment (or do not perform to their best ability) are able to appeal their assessment result in line with the criteria in our standard appeals process. Whilst we cannot alter your grade following the board of examiners, you can ask that we consider discounting this assessment attempt - thus allowing you to sit the assessment again with no cap / penalty. 

Assessment integrity 

We are aware that many of you are concerned that the development of alternative assessments in place of conventional, invigilated examinations might make it easier for some students to seek to gain an unfair advantage by cheating.   

To mitigate against this possibility, where programme teams have introduced assessments open for 24 hours or longer they have designed these to exercise your skills in analysis, evaluation and synthesis.  As these skills require you to think critically and creatively and to apply your knowledge to particular scenarios, your responses will need to show your independence of thought.  Where assessments are designed more simply to test knowledge they will be in the form of SBAs and MCQs, in randomised order, and remain under time-constrained conditions.  

Although we believe that most of our students will behave with integrity, we accept that this will not always be the case.  Students who are tempted to cheat should be aware that they are leaving themselves open to exploitation if their dishonesty is known to others.  We would also stress that we will be taking additional measures to detect academic misconduct including the enhanced use of plagiarism detection software.  We will also be calling on students to report instances of academic misconduct for investigation under our Disciplinary and Fitness to Practise procedures.  Where misconduct is confirmed, this can result in expulsion from St George’s.  

We will expect each of you to play your part in ensuring that the assessments you take are meaningful reflections of your learning.  Before every assessment we will ask you to read and sign up to a Statement of Integrity and Professionalism. This is to remind you of your responsibility as an individual not to cheat or assist others in cheating. To protect you and others, where cheating, including plagiarism and collusion, is detected the usual disciplinary and fitness to practice regulations will be applied.  

Guidance for learning and assessment online

Our Learning Development team has put together advice geared specifically to the challenges of studying during the present situation. We urge you to take a look at this resource on Study+ 

Our Centre for Technology in Education has worked closely with your course teams to ensure the process for engaging with and submitting your assessments are established and work well.  Support continues to be available via Learning Technology Services and your Course teams.  Where changes to an assessment have meant that you will need to utilise a technology (for example in the case of presentations), instructions on how to access these have been produced and disseminated via Canvas. For further information on learning technology for students, please visit Canvas.  

If you have an individual query, please contact the Learning Technology Services team at LTS@sgul.ac.uk and we will try and resolve this for you as quickly as possible. 

 

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