Case Study 16: Transforming assessment practices in undergraduate engineering for distance-learning students

Morris, Carol and Goodyear, Alec (2017). Case Study 16: Transforming assessment practices in undergraduate engineering for distance-learning students. In: Elkington, Sam and Evans, Carol eds. Transforming Assessment in Higher Education: A Case Study Series. UK: Higher Education Academy, pp. 94–98.



The Open University (OU) is a UK based, distance-learning organisation taking students from diverse backgrounds. Formal entry qualifications are not required and approximately one third of the students registered for undergraduate engineering qualifications do not have ‘A’ levels or equivalent. Consequently, retention and progression are lower than that at conventional universities. Approximately 1100 students per annum enter the programme, the vast majority of whom are in full-time employment.

Following the introduction of loans for part-time students in England in 2012 the OU moved from a module-based model to one which was qualification based. Prior to 2014 engineering students were required to study two, compulsory, 30-credit, mathematics modules at level 4 which were ‘service’ taught. It became apparent that over half of the engineering students were experiencing difficulties with the mathematics modules and were either withdrawing from study or failing the mathematics modules and were consequently unable to progress with their engineering qualification.

In 2014, after consultation with Faculty staff and Associate Lecturers, the decision was made to integrate mathematics into the engineering curriculum and to teach it in context. This major restructuring of the engineering curriculum required three of the four compulsory 30-credit modules studied at level 4 to be rewritten. These modules are compulsory for both the BEng (Hons) and the integrated MEng. Modules are written by teams of academics, led by a module chair, and utilise a blended-learning approach using printed teaching material and online active learning materials, forums and other resources available through the module’s website on the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Once the rewrite of level 4 modules has been completed, others at levels 5 and 6 will also be rewritten so that by 2019 most of the core engineering curriculum will be new.

Previously module teams had autonomy in setting assessment strategies and assessment tasks at the individual module level and there was little, if any, interaction between teams. This could result in differences in advice and guidance to students as well as repetition of assessment tasks to accommodate students taking modules in different orders. The restructuring gave the qualification team an unprecedented opportunity to review student progression, develop assessment strategies across the whole qualification, and to design assessment which enhanced student engagement with the module materials.

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