Using a report to assess learning
A report is a practical, concise document with a clear purpose and written for a specific audience. It presents and analyses specific information and evidence applied to a particular issue or a problem in order to provide findings or recommendations.
Reports are used in different professions and can be adapted to any investigative context; as such they can be relevant to any discipline or work context but it is important to remember that reports for different briefs and audiences require different structures and approaches.
Different types of report
Depending on the intended learning outcomes, on your disciplinary area and on the specific purpose and audience of the report, there are different types of reports that you might ask students to produce. As well as having the opportunity to practice the research, analytic and writing skills necessary to produce a report, students should also have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the specific format and structure required for that particular kind of report. When deciding which type of report you will select as the assessment task, it might be useful to consider which of the following categories better maps to your intended learning outcomes and to the sort of expertise or skills that your students need to develop:
- informational report - presents detailed facts about a specific activity without any conclusions or suggestions of meaning or significance
- analytical report - contains facts along with analytical explanations offered by the author/s
- research report - is based on the research work conducted by the author/s on a given question or problem
- statutory report - needs to be presented according to the requirements of a particular law or rule
- practical report - needs to clearly communicate the aims, methods, findings and conclusions of an experiment or investigations.
Within each of these broad categories you can then identify a wide range of authentic examples such as: progress report, write-up of practical work or field work, incident report, sales activity report, personnel evaluation, financial report, literature review, book report, engineering report, demographic report, inspection report, sales projection report, feasibility study/report, progress report, lab report, etc.
What can the method assess?
A report can be useful in assessing knowledge of processes and investigative procedures, analysis and interpretation of information or data. However, it is important to remember that a report does not directly assess practical skills, rather it measures knowledge of the skills and information generated by using the skills; it relies on students researching, recording and interpreting data or manipulating results (Pickford and Brown, 2006).
Assessing a report
As with any type of assessment you must develop clear assessment criteria when designing the task and provide opportunities for students to engage with and understand the criteria. Intended learning outcomes should be the starting point when selecting the type of assessment and developing assessment criteria. It is also important to engage students in formative tasks and ensure regular opportunities for feedback and dialogue.
Questions to consider:
- what learning outcomes does this type of assessment allow students to demonstrate?
- will you be assessing process or product or both?
- do you need to develop different criteria for the product and process if you are assessing both?
- what weight will you give to different elements such as structure, presentation, style, analysis, content, use of figures and tables, references, etc.?
- what opportunities will students have to learn, practice and receive feedback?
The purpose of a report should determine what it contains and how it is constructed and presented. When asking students to write a report it is important to provide a report brief with clear instructions and guidelines. The report brief may outline the purpose, audience and issue that the report must address, together with any specific requirements for format or structure.
A key feature of reports is that they are formally structured in sections, however reports for different briefs require the inclusion of different sections. The use of sections makes it easy for the reader to jump straight to the information they need. It is important for students to understand the function of each section in order to organise and present information effectively. To this end it might be appropriate either for you to provide clear guidance with regard to the structure of the report and what is expected in each section, or to involve your students in the production of agreed guidelines.
Questions to consider:
- does the report brief contextualise the task as authentic?
- does your report brief provide a clear set of aims? (i.e. what is the intended focus of the report? Who is it written for? Why is it being written?)
- are students expected to follow a specific report structure? If so, how have you ensured that all students are familiar with this structure?
- how much time will students need to allocate for planning and preparation? (Including gathering and selecting information, organising the material, analysing the material and writing the report.)
- what opportunities have students had to practice? What formative assessment have they undertaken to prepare them for summatively assessed tasks?
Depending on the context you might ask your students to produce an individual report or a group report. An individual report can be used either to demonstrate learning from of a sustained programme of independent work or to evidence individual contributions to a group or team in a professional manner. Alternatively, tasking a group with producing a collective report can motivate the group to organise, discuss and negotiate the best way forward, thus providing an opportunity to develop a range of skills that are widely relevant to the workplace. (Click here for further guidance on group work.)
Diversity & inclusion
As mentioned before, report writing is an essential skill in many disciplines and in the workplace, but depending on their prior learning experiences, background, knowledge and opportunities students might be more or less familiar with this format. It is important, for the benefit of all students, to ensure clarity around expectations, writing style, structure, range of sources, etc.
Reduces opportunities for plagiarism. (Click here for further guidance on plagiarism.)
Student and staff experience
Reports are one of the most common forms of writing in the working world and are therefore useful in preparing students to develop and demonstrate skills that are more widely relevant to the workplace. Irrespective of the disciplinary context and subject focus, writing a report (depending on the specific brief) provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their ability to:
- understand the brief and adhere to its specifications
- gather, evaluate and analyse relevant information and data
- write for a specific audience
- structure and present material in a logical and coherent order
- master a concise, fluent and direct use of language
- draw appropriate conclusions that are supported by the evidence and derived from the analysis of the information considered
- make relevant recommendations where required
- provide complete and correct references.
Writing a report requires students to be able to:
- manage their time effectively
- comprehend the brief
- understand why the report is being written
- consider who the report is for
- identify relevant sources and information
- assess the relevance of the sources to the report and select accordingly
- organise the material in a logical and accessible way
- write clearly and concisely, etc.
All of these demands, if not adequately supported, could pose challenges to your students; practice of, and formative feedback on, report writing is, therefore, essential.
Workload for students: the amount of time required to gather data and write the report should be commensurate to the percentage of marks they carry within the overall assessment plan.
Workload for staff: writing a clear assessment brief will require an initial investment in time, however marking a report tends to be less time-consuming than reading a long essay.
Bird, F and Yucel, R. (2015). Feedback codes and action plans: building the capacity of first-year students to apply feedback to a scientific report. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 40 (4) 508-527.
Bogg, D. (2012). Report writing. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Eriksson, Å and Maurex, L. (2018). Teaching the writing of psychological reports through formative assessment: peer and teacher review, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43 (8) 1294-1301.
Haines, C (2004). Assessing Students' Written Work: Marking Essays and Reports. London: Key Guides for Effective Teaching in Higher Education. Routledge Falmer