Denise Edens is an expert in assessment and
qualification design, who has supported a number of
awarding bodies and training centres in delivering
assessment and in developing new qualifications.
Our blog series “Examining the Experts” asks leaders and
experts in assessment – practitioners and consultants,
authors and solution providers – to share their
experience and knowledge on the world of assessment and
the impact of new innovations and exam technology.
Today’s contributor is Denise Edens, an expert in
assessment and qualification design. She has supported
a number of awarding bodies and training centres in
delivering assessment and in developing new
qualifications. She operates through her own business,
Edens Education Ltd. She is a strong believer in
qualifications as keys to open doors to new
opportunities, for all people.
Denise has recently been supporting training
organisations who are on the path to becoming
Ofqual-recognised awarding bodies, and has also been
supporting awarding organisations with the development
of qualifications in a huge variety of sectors,
ranging from canine hydrotherapy to cyber security.
She also runs training events on behalf of the
Federation of Awarding Bodies.
What piece of advice would you give to anyone planning a
career in assessment?
I would advise that you work for a training organisation
first. This helps you to understand the importance and
impact of qualifications on learners and centres. It
helps you to develop qualifications and make assessment
decisions based on understanding how real candidates
think in the pressurised environment of an exam. It
reminds you that a candidate usually only takes your
qualification once, so it is a big deal for them as it
can make or break their transition to the next stage in
their education or career.
So if you write examination questions and you’ve been
through the assessment cycle a few times and are feeling
a bit bored and think you might to do something slightly
off-centre to liven things up in this year’s exam,
having the experience in a centre helps you see it from
the candidate’s perspective of the assessment being a
one-off life-changing opportunity for them, so you keep
the questions comparable to previous ones, for fairness
Thinking back over your career, what would you rank as
the most important innovation in running qualifications
at an awarding organisation?
Undoubtedly the move from paper-based assessment to
online has been the most important innovation. It can
make marking more objective, as examiners might only
mark a few questions across a massive cohort, rather
than whole examination scripts, so they can’t use a
candidate’s performance on a previous question in the
paper to influence their decisions on a current
Where scripts are chunked up and one question from all
candidates is beamed down to a single examiner, it can
be fairer for candidates as there is no opportunity for
discrepancies in marking by a huge range of different
examiners to creep in.
reduces the need to send parcels across the country to
examiners, with the risk of them going missing in the
post or being left on doorsteps.
What would you say was the biggest challenge facing
awarding bodies today?
I think managing malpractice in centres is challenging
as there is tension between an awarding organisation and
its centres, who on the one hand are its customers, and
on the other hand must at all times adhere to quality
practices. Malpractice can be particularly difficult to
manage in overseas centres as it is more costly to visit
them and some countries face difficulties with a culture
of not quite playing by the rules. I have experienced an
overseas candidate trying to bribe a centre in the UK to
give him his certificate at the time of registering for
the course, by slipping some money into his registration
form. Thankfully the centre rejected it, and forced him
to play fair and turn up to class.
Do you think that the use of paper in examinations will
be phased out or will it always have a role?
I hope that examinations will become mainly online,
because an online examination can be more interactive
than pen and paper, and questions can be in colour which
can be helpful. We all spend more time on keyboards than
writing with a pen these days, so it is more realistic
for candidates to sit assessments onscreen. It also
enables them to edit and hone their answers more easily,
and to do word counts, as in real life.
However, certain candidates, particularly those with
vision or motor skills challenges, may not be suited to
onscreen assessment, so paper versions will always need
to be additionally available. Also, in situations where
the use of IT would be a barrier to the assessment of
the knowledge or understanding being assessed, we should
use paper and pen.
What do you think have been the most useful technical
advancements in assessment software?
Online marking systems make it much easier for a
Principal Examiner to moderate the marking being done by
the team of examiners, due to having a super-user
functionality which enables the PE to look into each
examiner’s allocation of marking remotely, to check
progress and help with any marking issues. This helps
ensure accurate marking and standardisation across all
the examiners. In the past the PE was reliant on the
examiners sending over a batch of sample scripts every
so often, which did not give the PE as much information
as they can now access. Also
helps the awarding organisation to see how the marking
across the whole team of examiners is progressing,
enabling the awarding organisation to monitor whether
sufficient scripts will be marked before the awarding
deadline and to reallocate scripts when needed.
Should we be running assessments differently? What would
you change if you could?
I think awarding organisations already offer a robust
service. If I could change one thing it would be to
decouple level 1 from level 2 at GCSE. GCSE awarders use
candidate performance statistics to set grade boundaries
using a normative approach, so a certain percentage of
the cohort is by definition destined to attain lower
than average grades. What’s odd about these school
leaving qualifications in our country is that the lower
grades are still technically a pass, but students and
the public tend to perceive the lower grades as failure.
Students may have actually performed well at level 1 but
this is only ever reflected as lower grades in the GCSE.
I would like to see candidates given a positive reward
for having achieved level 1, before going on to achieve
at level 2. This would prevent unnecessary humiliation
and negative attitudes to learning due to perceived past
What’s the most unusual assessment story you have
encountered or experienced?
By definition, most awarding organisation work is
careful, rigorous and methodical, so unusual things
don’t tend to happen. This makes it sound dull but I
actually find it very creative, particularly when
developing new qualifications, exam questions and
My current role as a consultant to a variety of awarding
organisations has given me the most unusual in-tray: one
day I can be writing an assignment for overseas aid
workers to manage volcanic eruptions; the next day I can
be flying to Saudi Arabia to help develop national
occupational standards, and another day I can be in a
meeting to review a canine hydrotherapy qualification.
Have you had a professional mentor who was especially
influential in your career? If yes, what lessons or
advice have proven to be most impactful for you?
I had a mentor while I was studying for a BTEC in
management at work. He was great at giving constructive
and honest feedback, which was a helpful approach.
I’ve learnt a lot from working with colleagues who were
great at their jobs: things like how to chunk work into
manageable tasks; why it helps to explain the importance
of tasks when delegating them; why fit-for-purpose is
better than perfection; and how to deal calmly with
emergencies in the exams season.
What social media platforms do you use regularly, and,
of these, which one do you find to be the most useful in
your professional life?
I find LinkedIn really useful for keeping in touch with
people I have met while working in the education sector.
It is also useful for being introduced to new people and
having people find me to approach me for consultancy
What business book or blog have you found most
interesting or useful in the past year?
I am a Consultant Member of the Federation of Awarding
Bodies and I find their weekly update extremely useful
as it provides a synopsis of the latest news, issues and
policies affecting awarding organisations. It’s a
clearly written digest, which saves me oodles of time.
It also has links to useful webinars and seminars.
to learn more about services that Denise provides, such
as independent freelance support and project management
to awarding organisations including qualification
development, assessment, support materials and training.
If you’re interested in online assessment for awarding
bodies, take a look at the
online assessment case studies
here for more insights into how organisations have made