Explorations of Imaginative Assessment for Learning in Higher Education

By Cecily Heras (MEd student & CIRCE Academic Council member)

Since late 2019, I have worked as a Research Assistant on a project about imaginative assessment for learning (AfL) in the context of higher education. The project was led by Dr. Gillian Judson and supported by a Teaching and Learning Development Grant from Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Study of teaching and Learning in the Disciplines. (Read about it here.)

In a nutshell, imaginative AfL is a practice that is intentional about engaging emotion and imagination in the process of assessment.

Our imaginative AfL work is theoretically aligned with Imaginative Education (IE) pedagogy, a theoretical and practical framework for teaching that centralizes the engagement and growth of imagination in the learning process. IE is a practice that uses “cognitive tools”— such as story, mental imagery, and affective binary opposites—to engage and support learners. (For a comprehensive list of the cognitive tools of IE visit the CIRCE website here.) Imaginative AfL involves employing cognitive tools in assessment practices in order to provide students with timely and useful feedback and instructors with information on student learning. It also involves engaging emotion and imagination in the process.

In the project, we worked collaboratively with five professors from different faculties to discuss the wide range of possibilities that AfL in general, and imaginative AfL specifically, offers for their teaching practice.  As a group we shared out creative ideas, offered and received feedback, and ultimately co-designed imaginative AfL activities for our students. These collaborations were rich and generated a great deal of excitement about the possibilities for learning that imaginative AfL presents.

Why Imaginative AfL?

Nowadays, many students coming out of high school begin higher education with some familiarity with AfL, some of the skills necessary for becoming more effective self-assessors, and a desire for constructive and timely feedback on assignments (Beaumont et al., 2011). Ideally, they should have further experiences with AfL during their time in higher education.  After all, I believe that the purpose of AfL, and of university, is to equip students with the metacognitive skills necessary for understanding themselves, their own work, and the world around them. AfL can increase student motivation, engagement, and retention of academic material. Through the inherent dialogic and self-reflective practices of AfL, professors learn about the students’ current state of understanding and change their practice accordingly, positively impacting student confidence, competence, and responsibility within and beyond higher education (Sambell et al., 2013). However, while AfL is frequently used in the K-12 system, it is much less common in higher education (Boud et al., 2018). Research shows that students are generally dissatisfied with the current assessment practices most often used in higher education (Carless, 2017). Perhaps it is time for a change.

By using imaginative AfL, professors can more fully their students in activities intentionally designed to engage imagination in the process of assessment. For example, in our project, using the cognitive tools of change of context and role play, one professor asked her students to pre-read academic articles then come to class as the authors. The class was a giant role-play activity. While some of the students were somewhat hesitant at first (this is not generally how one expects a graduate class to go) they ended up staying in character even during the dinner break and reported that the activity was extremely engaging and effective for their learning. Another example from our project was in a first-year biology course and utilized the affective binary opposites cognitive tool. The assessment asked the biology students to describe meiosis through dramatic oppositions such as parent-child, linear-cyclical, and alone-together. While some students indicated that this type of unfamiliar questioning caused them some anxiety, students’ responses were overwhelmingly positive. The question allowed them some space to think broadly and be creative rather than simply repeat an answer from the textbook. The instructor found the question powerful for indicating students’ varied levels of understanding, too. Students really had to understand the biological process to answer this question well.

While much of higher education is still focused on summative grading, there is room for AfL in every department so long as professors are willing to view students’ active role in assessment as integral to learning. There are of course barriers to the full implementation of AfL, which, in many ways, really calls for a change in the ethos of the university. Cultural change takes time and effort. Through our review of literature on AfL in higher education and through collaborating on this project, not only have I gained a greater understanding of AfL practices, but I have also gained a more nuanced understanding of just how important imagination is to every part of classroom practice.

Whether delivering lessons or taking part in activities, imagination is what fuels engagement, assists in retention of material, and brings the learning process alive.

By using imagination in all classrooms, we can really help to get students ready for an unclear and unknowable future, what Macy & Brown (2014) refer to as the “courage to walk where there is no path” (p.33).


Beaumont, C., O’Doherty, M., & Shannon, L. (2011). Reconceptualizing assessment feedback: A key to improving student learning? Studies in Higher Education, 36 (6), 671-687. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075071003731135

Boud, D., Dawson, P., Bearman, M., Bennett, S., Joughin, G., & Molloy, E. (2018).

Reframing assessment research: through a practice perspective. Studies in Higher Education, 43(7), 1107-1118. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2016.1202913

Carless, D. (2017). Scaling up assessment for learning in higher education: Progress and prospects. In D. Carless, S.M. Bridges, C.K.Y. Chan, & R. Glofcheski (Eds.), Scaling up assessment for learning in higher education (pp. 3-17). Springer International Publishing.

Egan, K. (1997). The educated mind: How cognitive tools shape our understanding. University of Chicago Press.

Macy, J. & Brown, M. (2014).  Coming Back to Life.  New Society Publishers.

Sambell, K., McDowell, L., & Montgomery, C. (2013). Assessment for learning in higher education. Routledge.

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