Power to the people – student autonomy and assessment

Cecilia Lowe (author) Kathryn Arnold; Celine Kingman; Benjamin Poore (co-presenters) explore student involvement in assessment setting


In a FORUM workshop run earlier this year on student attendance and motivation, Ryan & Deci’s 2001 article ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions’ was used as a basis for some very interesting discussion. The authors postulate that the amount of self-determination inherent in an activity can significantly affect the manner in which we engage with that activity and therefore how successful we are at it. The paper also argues that self-determination is dependent upon meeting three basic needs: the need to feel competent (competency); the need to feel a sense of belonging (relatedness); and the need to feel in control (autonomy). Applying this theory to our students’ level of engagement and therefore success in the higher education context, it may be worth considering if our programmes of learning engender feelings of competence, relatedness and autonomy. More challengingly, it might be worth considering to what degree our approaches to assessment do the same.

Exams written on multiple road sign

With regard to increasing our students’ sense of autonomy by allowing them more involvement in assessment, some colleagues may feel that surrendering this last bastion of authority – our control over assessment – is something which should never be contemplated. However, as Boud states:

If students are to become autonomous and interdependent learners as argued in statements of aims of higher education, then the relationship between student and assessor must be critically examined and the limiting influences of such an exercise of power explored. (1995:43)

To facilitate this exploration, the Learning and Teaching Conference workshop Power to the people! Addressing inclusivity and student motivation through extending student choice in assessment will consider allowing students more involvement and control with regard to assessment. Our intention in the session is to provide a space for colleagues to debate the value of giving students more autonomy over their learning, as well as an opportunity to hear from colleagues who have experimented with allowing students a greater degree of assessment choice.

Engaging students in assessment setting

What is meant by student control or involvement in assessment can vary considerably but to provide some food for thought before the conference workshop, here are some examples.

Assessments in which students are involved in setting goals, i.e. students:

  • define the specific areas for their assessment;
  • define the weighting of different parts of their assessment;
  • design assessment tasks or contribute to the creation of tests;
  • create assessment rubrics or negotiate criteria;
  • define the areas on which they would like to receive feedback.

Assessments in which students make choices, i.e. students choose:

  • the topic of their assessment e.g. the topic of a module essay or dissertation;
  • between different types of format for their assessment e.g. a written submission or spoken presentation;
  • how many pieces of their work or which pieces of their work are assessed e.g. portfolio work.

Assessments which encourage self-management and regulation by students, i.e. students:

  • assess themselves and reflect on their own progress;
  • assess other students by acting as markers;
  • choose when they are assessed e.g. when they will complete and submit different pieces of work and therefore manage their time.

Clearly, the need to design and implement assessment practices which are robust and fair for all students determines to a great extent how much we feel we can engage with such open approaches.  However, if by veering too far in the opposite direction – through emphasising closed examination, one-size-fits-all assessments – we alienate our students from engaging fully with our discipline and their own learning, are our assessments serving us, or our students, well at all?  Would we be better served by considering assessments which support more autonomy and therefore self-determination for our students?  Why not come along to the session at the learning and teaching conference to discuss these questions further.


  • Boud, D. (1995) Enhancing Learning through Self Assessment. London: Kogan Page
  • Cameron. J (2001) Negative effects of Reward on Intrinsic Motivation- a limited phenomenon: comment on Deci, Koestner and Ryan. Review of Educational Research  71:1,  29 – 42
  • Ryan, R.M & Deci, E.L (2000)  Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67

A13_Lowe-bio-picCecilia Lowe is a Senior Fellow of the HEA and Head of the Learning Enhancement Team. Before joining the university in 2007, she worked in the higher education sector in both Sri Lanka and Turkey. She is particularly interested in academic cultures and creating effective learning environments.

One thought on “Power to the people – student autonomy and assessment

  1. Pingback: L&T Session C – Power to the people: addressing inclusivity and student motivation through choice in assessment format | York Learning & Teaching Forum

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