Ipsative Assessment, an Engineering Experience

How will students demonstrate learning? What types of Assessments will you use? https://www.flickr.com/photos/gforsythe/

Last month I attended and presented at the Canadian Engineering Education Association Conference that was held in McMaster University.  It was a wonderful learning experience that allowed all participants to connect with engineering educators not only from Canada, but from other countries such as United Kingdom and Costa Rica. In this blog I would like to talk about an interesting paper presented by our colleagues at the Faculty of Engineering Science , University College London[1],

The presenters started by briefly describing the new integrated engineering programme that connects curricula across seven different engineering disciplines in a problem/project based interdisciplinary learning opportunity. The integrated engineering programme provides students with experience in authentic real life engineering projects. While working in teams, students gain experience not only in engineering technical skills, but also in professional skills such as project management, communication, lifelong learning and team work.

In this programme an ipsative formative assessment/feedback method was used to provide the students with an opportunity to reflect on their previous work and plan for their following experience while referring to their summative assessment(s).

What is Ipsative assessment?

Ipsative assessment is the process of comparing a student’s performance against his/her previous performance. Unlike criterion-based and norm-based assessments that rely on comparing the student to external criteria or to his peers, ipsative assessments compares the students’ performance to their own previous performance. It is applied mostly in physical education and computer games, where it can take peer pressure and the competitive element out of situation [2]. Ipsative assessment is more widely used in early education where there is more emphasis on the learners’ personal progression than in higher education where there is more stress on the students’ grades. However, one can argue that measuring students personal progress is as important as measuring their competencies and skill development [3].

 This graphic was inspired by the one developed by the Instructional Development Center at the Purdue University, https://www.purdue.edu/learning/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/FFFBFUimage.png

This graphic was inspired by the one developed by the Instructional Development Center at the Purdue University,



The integrated Engineering Programme model

In this programme, students work in multidisciplinary teams on solving ill-defined Problems “challenges”, in which students use human-centered design approach to analyze these challenges. A variety of summative assessment methods are used to assess the projects including electronic portfolios, design solution videos, team and client meetings, team presentations, technical prototype performance testing and reflective writing. In order to prepare the students for their summative assessments, they also participate in a couple of formative ipsative feedback sessions in which:

  • The students submit their draft portfolio (Assessment 1)
  • The academic leaders meet with the students in their working space
  • The students prepare and deliver a short presentation at the beginning of the meeting
  • The academic leader provides the students with comments and questions for improvement (feed forward) and the students self-assess their own work
  • A conversation occurs about the students perception compared to the leader’s perception and the students then submit a reflective writing about the process
  • The students submit their second assessment (based on the feed forward they received) followed by another meeting with their leader
  • In the second meeting the students get feedback on how they have developed compared to their previous assessment (feedback). They also receive comments and questions on the second assessment that helps them prepare for assessment 3 (feed forward).

The provided feedback is not only related to the project students are working on, but also includes comments on more general skills, such as thinking or writing skills which can help students in producing other projects and improving their draft work. Statements in the feedback are usually illustrated with points from the current assessment and should also be connected to the final summative assessment.

My take away from this presentation is that I think using ipsative formative assessment can allow students to appreciate, early in their education, the importance of comfortably giving and receiving feedback as well as learning lessons from the process. Ipsative assessment also supports student centered teaching and learning in Project based environment which enriches the learning experience and increases students’ motivation, critical thinking and decision making.


  1. “Ipsative learning: a personal approach to a student’s experience of PBL within an integrated engineering design cornerstone module”, E. Tille, Canadian Engineering Education Association Conference, 2015, paper 75.
  2. http://blog.questionmark.com/what-is-ipsative-assessment-and-why-would-i-use-it
  3. https://cdelondon.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/tra6finalreport_g_hughes.pdf
  4. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/~ucgbarg/OU_workshop_files/TWO37-GH.pdf

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Samar Mohamed

Samar Mohamed is the CTE Liaison for Faculty of Engineering. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence Samar worked as a Post Doctoral Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. She received both her MSc and PhD from the University of Waterloo

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