Paving the way for a new approach to student assessment

New policy emphasizes student learning over rankings
Smiling student sitting in university classroom
Jacob Lund / Getty Images

In September 2024, McGill’s new Policy on Assessment of Student Learning (PASL) will come into effect, marking a significant shift in the University’s approach to assessment of student learning.

Although the existing University Student Assessment Policy (USAP) remains in effect until then, now is the time for instructors at McGill to familiarize themselves with the new policy and begin examining their assessment practices to be ready to implement changes in the Fall 2024 term.

In this article, experts from Teaching and Learning Services closely involved with the development and implementation of PASL answer some key questions about the new Policy.

What is PASL?

PASL provides a framework for assessment practices at McGill. It is a principles-based policy, which emphasizes that assessment should be used to support student learning rather than evaluate or rank students.

The guiding principles of PASL provide an overarching framework that the rest of the Policy is based on. The principles also help to guide the development of local guidelines and procedures adapted to individual Faculty contexts while respecting and ensuring consistency with the Policy.

The guiding principles outline that assessments should:

  • Align with healthy teaching and learning environments
  • Promote high academic standards and academic integrity
  • Be pedagogically sound
  • Allow for valid and reliable judgement of student learning

Building from these guiding principles, PASL outlines policy on fair assessments, communication of assessment tasks, third-party rereads, and more.

Why is McGill introducing a new assessment policy? Why now?

Discussions and extensive community consultations have been taking place for over five years about how assessment can better support students. To advance McGill’s principles of academic freedom, integrity, responsibility, equity, and inclusiveness, it was determined we need to shift how we think about assessment at the University.

PASL is centred on “assessment for learning,” an approach that is supported by evidence-based research in assessment pedagogy. Many universities nationally and internationally have also begun to shift their assessment practices in line with this thinking. As McGill evolves in the twenty-first century, it is time for our assessment practices to reflect a more relevant, learning-centred approach to assessment, and PASL is an important step in that direction.

What’s changing?

Given its focus on supporting student learning, PASL differs from USAP in some key ways. For example, it specifies that instructors must clearly explain to students what they need to do to complete an assessment task and outlines explicit criteria for how student learning and performance will be assessed, rather than assessing students’ work on a curve or with a ranking system.

PASL is less exam-centric than USAP, as it allows for the examination period to be used for a wider variety of assessment tasks, such as essays, presentations, posters, and multi-media designs.

PASL also emphasizes healthy learning environments and equitable assessment practices, such as a student’s right to receive early formative feedback in time for them to make decisions about whether to remain in the course. Of course, early feedback is also helpful to students in identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Further, PASL allows for increased flexibility and reasonable accommodation of student needs.

Also new is a more transparent accountability process that marks a clear path for students to contest a grade or an assessment practice that does not align with the Policy.

You can find a side-by-side table breaking down some more of the key differences between PASL and USAP on the new PASL website.

Who does it apply to?

As a University-wide policy, PASL will affect all of McGill! The Policy will apply to all undergraduate and graduate courses, for which students can earn credit and receive a final grade on an official McGill transcript. Instructors will need to ensure that their assessments align with PASL, although in many cases only minor adjustments will be needed.

When does it come into effect?

PASL will come into effect at the beginning of the Fall 2024 term. Until that time, USAP remains in effect. A (two-year) implementation period was built into the Policy release process, as the University recognized that adapting assessment practices will take time and require support.  The University also supported the hiring of an Academic Associate at TLS, Dr. Margo Echenberg, whose main responsibility is to provide support to instructors for the transition.

How does this affect me / what do I need to do?

At the Faculty level:

TLS is currently working with Faculties and academic units across McGill to support the drafting of local guidelines and procedures, help inform instructors about the upcoming changes, and identify assessment practices that could benefit from targeted pedagogical support. Participate in Faculty and department meetings to learn more and take part in these conversations.

As an instructor:

This is the perfect time for you to familiarize yourself with the Policy and review your current practices. Some changes outlined in PASL can be implemented now as they don’t contravene USAP. For example, instructors can give students formative feedback before the official course withdrawal date (PASL 5.3) or outline expectations for all assessment tasks by detailing explicit criteria to describe the key elements of students’ learning on a given task (PASL 5.5). Implementing some of these small changes in your upcoming courses will give you a chance to update or tweak your assessment practices and be ready to implement them for the Fall 2024 term. Review our available resources to help you implement PASL.

As a student:

It’s important to know that the principles of PASL are student-centred and strive for a better learning experience at McGill. They speak to many shared concerns of the entire University community, such as promoting equitable and healthier learning environments, and consistency in assessment practices. PASL also promotes balancing workloads, with more flexibility around assessments while upholding academic rigor and promoting academic integrity. The main goal of assessment is to support students in their learning. Once PASL is implemented in Fall 2024, students will have explicit rights, such as being able to view an explanation of their grade, requesting reasonable accommodation, and being free of assessment tasks that are due during reading breaks or after the last day of exams. Students will also be responsible for familiarizing themselves with the expectations for assessment tasks and reviewing feedback from instructors. Learn more about what PASL means for you as a student.

Who can I contact for help?

TLS has many existing resources in place to support instructors with assessment for learning (articles, blog posts, and recorded webinars) and is compiling new resources (articles, video tutorials, and podcasts) to assist instructors in preparing for PASL. A particularly useful resource in preparation is a searchable bank of assessment tools used by instructors at McGill. Instructors can also attend one of TLS’s course design offerings to learn more about learning-centred assessment or book a consultation to get personalized help designing their assessment strategies.

Students can learn more about what the Policy means for them on the student section of the PASL website. We’ll be posting more information about student rights and responsibilities closer to Fall 2024.

If anyone from the McGill community has questions about PASL that they’re not able to find an answer to, they are welcome to contact TLS through the PASL website.