Democratic Assessment: Using a students-as-partners approach to re-think assessment in Consumer Behaviour


This research aims to investigate and evaluate the introduction of students as partners approach to assessment design in Consumer Behaviour. The more democratic approach reflects more accurately the needs of the professional environment that these students hope to enter. I chose to use an action research methodology to intervene in my teaching and assessment practice in one of my modules. Students on my Consumer Behaviour module worked in small groups and involved in co-creation of (1) their midterm exam format; (2) their exam content: short essay titles, mini case study titles, MCQs, visual analysis titles to be included in their exam; and (3) collaboratively decided on the percentage weighting for each section in their midterm examination. Analysis of findings showed that using SaP in assessment helped students to perform better results; to forge a sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, their learning; and created a strong sense of learning community.

Published on 16th March 2020 | Written by Alex Aidan | Photo by Kaung Myat Min on Unsplash


Contemporary higher education teaching is no longer perceived as an act of depositing information (Freire, 1970), where a lecturer is the unquestioned expert and student is the novice. For the ultimate student-centered experience, I suggest that it is important to encourage students’ active participation in their own learning.  Our role as lecturers should become more of that of a guide and a consultant. I believe one way to achieve this is Students as Partners (SaP) approach. Therefore, I decided to focus on possible uses of SaP to democratize my assessment process.

Literature Review

Students as Partners (SaP) embraces students and staff working together to achieve effective teaching and learning in higher education, which concerns reciprocal communication.  Cook-Sather et al. (2014) defines SaP as a reciprocal process through which the lecturer and students have possibilities to contribute equally, but not necessarily in the same ways. The UK higher education sector is witnessing an increased interest in practice focusing on (SaP) to co-design learning and teaching in higher education (Bovill, 2013; Healey et al. 2014). There is even a new journal dedicated to partnership research (International Journal for Students as Partners).

The benefits of engaging in SaP are many. It is evident that they can offer students a truly memorable learning experience by enhancing engagement, employability skills and attributes (Deeley, 2015), and by giving them the possibility of taking an active role in their learning (Cook-Sather et al, 2014). They can also create a transformed sense of self and self-awareness for both students and staff (Werder & Otis, 2010; Cook-Sather & Abbot, 2016) and develop more inclusive teaching practices (Cook-Sather & Agu, 2013).

In the literature, it has been asserted that assessment and feedback are the weakest links in learning and teaching (Rust, O’Donovan and Price, 2005). Given its above-listed benefits, one expects to find extensive use of SaP in assessment to reduce major student dissatisfaction in higher education assessment. However, I have found that a focus on assessment is relatively uncommon and very limited within SaP practice and research (Vremande Olde & Jong, 2004; Boles, 1999; Vreman-de Olde & Jong, 2004; Hudd, 2003) even though there is growing evidence of beneficial outcomes for SaP in assessment such as deeper learning and enhanced skills development (Deeley, 2014); enhanced exam performance and student learning (Hardy et al. 2014); and deeper understanding of assessment processes (Sambell and Graham 2011).

For example, Mercer-Mapstone et al. (2017), in their systematic literature review of students as partners in higher education, reports that academic research put a much greater emphasis on the “enhancement of learning and teaching” side of the Healey et al. (2014) model than on “learning, teaching, and research partnerships”, meaning that practitioners were engaging in partnerships that were extracurricular. In a contemporary higher-level education environment, using constructivist learning techniques like co-creation is becoming increasingly important.  Deeley and Bovill (2017) assert that adopting (SaP) in assessment may lead to more democratic classroom practices, and this in return can have a wide range of positive benefits.


This article is a piece of action research therefore I chose to use an action research methodology to intervene in my teaching and assessment practice. 16 students were taking this course and I used all students taking this module to evaluate the intervention.

The study was undertaken at a university in Rome during the Fall 2019 semester with students following four-year undergraduate degrees. It involved all the students who were studying Consumer Behaviour course, which was taught completely by myself. The classroom population was a mix of third and fourth year (both study abroad and resident) students. They came from different majors including business administration, communication, film studies, political science, economics, religious studies, and tourism management. I adopted a lecturer-student partnership that engaged students as co-designers within assessment processes founded on democratic classroom practice suggested by Deeley and Bovill (2017).

The objective of this intervention was to help students to become active creators of content rather than passive consumers by engaging them actively and meaningfully with their learning through assessment (Casey et al. 2014) consistent with a constructivist teaching and learning philosophy. The original midterm was designed as a two hour closed book exam and weighted 25% of the overall course grade. Furthermore, I had received numerous negative feedback from my students who took this module last semester. I was not able to make any major structural changes to the exam. This was because of the university regulations. Nevertheless, this did not constitute an issue because my main objective fort his intervention was to help students to become active creators of content. None of the students had previous experience of staff-student co-assessment in a different course before. The idea of partnership was a very unfamiliar approach and students were curious about the intervention (Deeley and Brown, 2014).


I used a full teaching session (45 minutes) for this intervention and students worked in small groups. The intervention took place 2 weeks before their scheduled midterm exam. The following activities were undertaken:

    1. Lecturer-student co-creation of students’ midterm exam format: This part involved students choosing what type of elements they wanted to have in their midterm examination. Following group discussion, they decided that they did not want short answer questions and true or false questions. We collectively decided to remove these two formats and accepted that the exam would consist of one short essay, one visual analysis, one mini-case study, and 35 MCQs.
    2. Lecturer-student co-creation of students’ short essay titles: Students were given parameters within which they could focus on what was of most interest to them. Following group discussions, we collectively shortlisted 3 topics that were most interesting for students.
    3. Lecturer-student co-creation of students’ mini case study titles: This part involved students choosing topics for a potential mini case study based on the module content. We revised the case-studies that we exercised during the first half of the semester. We collectively decided on the format of the case study. Then we shortlisted 3 case studies to be included in the exam.
    4. Lecturer-student co-creation of students’ MCQ titles: This part involved students creating multiple-choice questions (MCQs) based on the module content from their official textbook. Students exchanged these questions with each other on Blackboard and I made the final decision on which 35 questions to be used in the exam.
    5. Staff-student co-creation of students’ visual analysis titles: This part involved deciding on which topic they wanted to make an advertising visual analysis and they collaboratively decided that they were most interested in the Italian fashion brand Gucci. They also decided on which particular campaign they were most interested in. Then, I decided on the advertisement to be used in their exam.
    6. Lecturer-student co-creation of students’ section percentage weighting for marks: This part involved students deciding on the percentage value of each element in their midterm examination.

Then, I made necessary changes to their midterm examination and administered it as scheduled.


Immediately after the midterm examination, I asked students to email me a very short personal reflection on this experience. 14 of the 16 students responded. One week after their midterm examination, I used a 50 minutes session for evaluations. During the first 15 minutes, I distributed their corrected and marked exam papers and we discussed some questions where they had they had difficulties. The remaining 35 minutes was dedicated to the evaluation of the intervention and it was relatively informal. I used their emails to start conversations on their experience. Some selected student comments are listed below:

    • Student 1- “It was refreshing to have a professor who genuinely cared about our needs.”
    • Student 2- “It was an exquisite experience to have a professor who tailored the exam specifically to us. I still can not believe this has happened.”
    • Student 3- “When I go home back to the States, I will tell all of my friends about this experience. This was truly one of the most interesting, fun, worthwhile, and impactful experience I had in any classroom. I felt mature.”
    • Student 4- “It made me feel I am in control of what I am learning the first time.”
    • Student 5- “I was in the driving seat for my exam.”
    • Student 6- “I am not a psychology person and I was quite worried about this module. The course is full of terminology and at times very difficult to understand. This exercise helped me to perform better in my midterm.”
    • Student 7- “This democratic experiment made me feel more valued.”
    • Student 8- “I felt very involved with the course.”
    • Student 9- “It was very different. I don’t know why but I was less stressed during this exam.” [This particular student suffers from anxiety disorder and has been granted learning accomodations].
    • Student 10- “I think we should have these collaborative discussions for every single exam.”
    • Student 11- “It was great fun. I learned quite a lot when I was preparing my part of MCQs. Then It was a strange feeling to see two of the questions I had designed were right there in front of me on my test.”

Some of the above statements show clearly that this exercise helped my students to forge a sense of ownership of, and responsibility for, their learning. I strongly believe that lecturers should offer students greater agency in their learning, enhance their assessment literacy, and help them feel a sense of being part of an engaged learning community. The adult learning theory indicates that adult students prefer more autonomy than younger students. According to Knowles (1980), traditional grading and assessment methods, in which assessment is a one-way process from staff to students, are inconsistent with adult’s self-concept of self-directivity and unilateral assessment is disempowering for students and forces students to be passive consumers of what is thrown at them (Boud, 2007; Falchikov, 2005).

Adult students have a deep need to be self-directing; therefore, they resent and resist situations in which they feel others are imposing their wills on them. Students should have the capacity and responsibility to inform and contribute to their learning. Allowing students to create their midterm seemed to provide the foundations for “diffusing authority along horizontal lines” (Giroux, 1988) and shifted my students from the role of educational consumers to “co-creators of a common life” in the classroom (Hudd, 2003).

Indeed, students really enjoyed this experience. It was considered to be rewarding by the majority of students. The results of this midterm exam turned out to be surprisingly higher compared to previous assessments that took place in this classroom.  Students stated that they particularly enjoyed the discussion in class and working with me as a group in co-designing their midterm exam contributed to a strong sense of learning community. Indeed, Healey et al., (2014) consider learning communities to be a key way in which lecturer-student partnerships in learning and teaching can be enacted and supported.


In higher education, assessment is perhaps a more difficult area in which to practice SaP because it is an area where lecturers still hold final decision making power over grades contributing to final degree outcomes. I am not saying that SaP in assessment should diminish the professional status or power of the lecturer but it should be seen as a process through which the lecturer’s position is enriched and authenticated. It is recognized that relinquishing some of our power and control in the classroom requires confidence and trust in our students but this should not discourage us from moving towards more democratic practices in the assessment as Bovill et al. (2015) argue that there are ways of reenvisaging challenges to offer potential solutions and further learning.

I strongly believe my willingness as a lecturer to listen, accept and/or change the ways their midterm could be co-designed was refreshing for my students and deeply helped me to create an inclusive classroom. Indeed, Furedi (2012) states that academia is a very normative system consisting of its own strict rules. In my opinion, this exercise formed a good example of how lecturers respond to students’ suggestions that extend beyond such a normative system. Indeed, Cook-Sather et al. (2014) propose lecturers to engage in a more complex set of relationships involving genuine dialogue with students for a more democratic classroom.

By offering a collaborative discussion and increased responsibility to my students in designing the elements of their assessment, I believe to have opened up the language of assessment, which is normally the domain of the lecturer, to my students. This further enabled them to enhance their assessment literacy. Consequently, this helped me to nurture trust and a feeling of community within the classroom, even though it has been a step outside the comfort zone for some of my students and my self.  I have found that a more democratic approach in the classroom is beneficial to students.


As higher education institutions purport to develop students as critical thinkers, independent and self-directed learners prepared for a constructive role in the world of work, I strongly advocate that a more progressive approach to learning and teaching is one way to achieve this. The SaP is undoubtedly an innovative pathway to enhancing students’ assessment literacy through democratic practices that can facilitate intrinsic motivation, active engagement and deeper approaches to learning. Following Cook-Sather et al. (2014) practical recommendations, I started designing a small partnership in this particular assessment.

I also note that assessment for learning involves using assessment, not only as a means of measuring the learning that has taken place but also as a mechanism for engaging students in learning (Doyle et al., 2019). A lecturer-student partnership approach to assessment is consistent with the idea of assessment for learning. It encourages more active involvement in the assessment and learning process and presents opportunities to enhance students’ capacity to judge their work as well as developing their assessment literacy (Deeley and Bovill 2017).

I wish to conclude that SaP in assessment can be a fruitful approach and I plan to extend it to wider and more diverse areas of assessment. Future research should look into a partnership with students in assessment in areas such as lecturer-student co-creation of summative exam marking criteria and student peer review of their summative exam answers using the agreed co-designed marking criteria.

Alex Aidan

Alexander is a senior lecturer with 18 plus years of international experience in fashion branding and marketing and worked for globally famous fashion schools both in the UK and abroad. He is a graduate of Alliance MBS and holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from London College of Fashion. Since 2013, he has been managing a successful fashion consultancy business based in London and Rome, and lecturing in Domus Academy in Milan and American University of Rome.


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