The Economics Network

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6. Assessment

As has been suggested many times already, assessment is crucial in delivering and generating learning of sustainability. A key principle is to use assessment to encourage engagement. This can be achieved by basing it around practical problems and objects around the students. As always, where possible, a variety of assessment methods is desirable, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of sustainability.

Given the interdisciplinary content of the sustainability curriculum, students may be exposed to very unfamiliar concepts. Pop quizzes and short tests (including multiple choice) can provide easy ways to test understanding of these new concepts, and to provide instant feedback to the students on their own learning. The classroom exercises can also provide opportunities for formative assessment. For example, students can be asked to present their ideas on how to achieve economies of scale in the most sustainable ways. They might be asked to write a reflective piece on their walk around their campus. Indeed, the university can be a valuable source of material which to study. As an example, in a module called Sustainable Business we have asked students to engage in coursework that allows them to study anything relevant to sustainability. In this case, almost two thirds of students choose to evaluate a real company or event. Many of those have been studies of what is going on at our university. The university has the advantage of being personally relevant to the students and therefore engaging; and of course it is also convenient, and with some minimal co-operation from university facilities and administrative staff, students can gain access to a wide data set on which to base their analyses.

Other classroom exercises could be part of the strategy for formative assessment. One is that of a guided role-play. Students could be asked to consider a scenario and then take roles of various stakeholders in it. For instance, a planning application may have been made for an incinerator. Students could adopt the perspective of a local resident, a planning officer, a local councillor, an environmental assessment expert, and a representative of a group offering the alternative technology of pyrolisis. This exercise helps develop skills of argumentation and presentation, challenges students to think flexibly, and helps them develop an holistic approach to real-world problems. This exercise could be drawn on subsequently, say in the exam: students would be presented with text of a variety of perspectives and then asked to make an assessment. In the latter case, the exercise clearly forms part of formal assessment, but the former could be formative, and could easily be adapted to employ peer assessment and feedback.

Top tips

Use assessment as a tool for engagement: some assessment early on ensures that students master crucial core concepts.

Evaluations of real cases tend to be either on current practices of the company or on the environmental impact (via CBA) of a major event, such as mining, or rock festivals. The key determinant of success on this project is whether the student embraces and applies an analytical framework. Where students go wrong is when their projects are too descriptive or lack criticality. The same principles apply when using real-world case studies. In-class cases allow students to explore changes in practice, such as new product lines or production techniques. Again, there are formative assessment opportunities in asking students to present their reflections on these developments. Additionally, in exams students can be presented with such examples and asked to reflect on them. It would also be possible to make some element of the exam open-book assessment, in which students draw on work they have done in class to address either cases they have been working on, or cases new to them. Another option might be to provide a case study to be studied in advance of the examination, with the questions unseen until the exam. In this way, depth of understanding, knowledge and analysis is encouraged.