Examining the Experts in Building Assessments, with Matthew White

Matthew White is digital learning consultant who is an expert in building assessments and managing assessment quality

Matthew White is digital learning consultant who is an expert in building assessments and managing assessment quality

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, assessment quality and the impact of new innovations and exam technology.

Today’s contributor is Matthew White, an expert in building assessments and managing the quality of assessments on a national scale. Read on to learn from his wealth of experience in this field, with key insights into what assessment should be trying to measure into the future and key developments in technology that might facilitate this.

What piece of advice would you give to anyone planning a career in assessment?

Wow, that is a tough one! I would say that it is important to gain experience in different areas of assessment so that you have a good understanding of all the moving parts. I am fortunate that I have worked writing items, building assessments, chairing editorial boards, managing the quality of assessments and when heading up the 'Life in the UK' test service, I ran the end-to-end delivery of a large national testing service including candidate support, 120 test centres, key stakeholder management (Home Office, Advisory Board, Parliament etc.), the introduction of 100% web registration and so on. Following that I have worked with 3 organisations that deliver assessments internationally: IB, NCC Education and NCUK.

All of this has given me a really good helicopter view of the assessment industry. So I would advise anyone thinking of a career in assessment to work in different functional areas and also try and work in different organisations in different markets. There is always something new to learn; as much how to do it as how not to do it.

Thinking back over your career, what would you rank as the most important innovation in management of certification programmes?

I would say the digitisation of assessment has been the most important aspect. It is still ongoing and there is much, much more to come. Nearly all large awarding organisations mark and moderate on screen. This brings improved quality of marking as well as reduced time to results. Even more so when the assessment is delivered on screen. However, we are still at a stage where we are doing what we have always done on paper just more efficiently and effectively. Once we start to break free from the lingering cultural restraints and mindset of decades (if not centuries!) of paper-based testing then we will really feel the benefits.

What would you say was the biggest challenge facing awarding bodies today? And how can they best meet this challenge?

Many assessments are still based on knowledge. If you look at what employers are looking for, knowledge is quite low down on the list. They are looking for key skills such as an ability to collaborate, analytical thinking, creativity. The world is changing at an ever faster pace and through mobile technology we can access the sum total of human knowledge via a device we can carry in our pockets. The important thing nowadays is being able to find relevant information, validate it and use it to effect. Being an independent and therefore a lifelong learner is another item on the wish list as is emotional intelligence (cultural sensitivity, adaptability, being able to deal with uncertainty etc.) How do we assess these effectively?

On a more practical level, essay mills are one of the key problems facing awarding organisations at the moment. This unwelcome form of outsourcing is a direct result of the successful combating of plagiarism by the use of software packages such as Turnitin. I suspect that this will be overcome only by changing the design of assessment.

Do you think that the use of paper in examinations will be phased out or will it always have a role?

I would imagine that there is some point in time when paper will be phased out completely, but not for a while yet. It is still easier for large cohort testing at a single physical location to be done on paper rather than digitally (in most cases). When you add in issues around connectivity and cultural lag, then paper testing will be with us for a while yet.

What do you think have been the most useful technical advancements in assessment software?

Most recently I would say that reliable, remote invigilation/proctoring has been a welcome advance. For many organisations, it has been possible to deliver learning to students remote from their bricks and mortar networks but not scalable to source assessments in bricks and mortar centres. So a massive tick for accessibility. It is also more secure than centre-based delivery, although more invasive. The main blocker apart from cultural resistance to this form of invigilation, is the cost. However, AI is now at the point where invigilation can be done digitally and that should make remote invigilation much more attractive.

What are the most dramatic changes you have seen in the running of exams over the course of your career?

Probably the use of on screen, objective testing to give instant results for mass testing programmes. Think 'Life in the UK' test and the driving theory test. This makes life so much better for all concerned compared to paper-based testing. Unthinkable when I entered the education industry back in 1989 (and yes, I am that old).

Should we be running assessments differently? What would you change if you could?

I have thought for a long time now that our assessments are based on a person’s performance at a single point in time; a snapshot if you like. This has worked for a long time and nearly all assessment works like this. However, with less emphasis being placed on knowledge and more on skills/competencies, then this makes less sense. We have the technology now to measure longitudinally rather than laterally. Imagine a thousand or a million snapshots of performance for each individual rather than just a few. Making sense of all this data is the challenge but once we get there, it could truly revolutionise assessment as we know it.

What’s the most unusual assessment story you have encountered or experienced?

Well, while managing the 'Life in the UK' test, illegal activity at one centre resulted in a 30-man police raid on the centre and a large trial. That was certainly a new experience.

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?

Not one but many in different sectors. I like to think I can learn something from everyone I meet. They all have their own story to tell and particular views and insights.

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 tend to use LinkedIn, but also keep an eye on Twitter and Facebook. I like reading Donald Clark’s blog as he loves to stir the pot and often has something of interest to say.

What business book or blog do have you found most interesting or useful in the past year?

Lots of books and not related to assessment. Two very good books I would recommend to anyone are: ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’ and ‘Thinking Inside the Box’.


Matthew started working in international education in 1989 as a TEFL teacher and teacher trainer in Spain and Brazil. Since 2000 he has worked with digital learning and assessment. He headed up the Life in the UK test service for six years from 2006 and since then has worked on digital strategy with the IB, NCC Education and NCUK. Matthew has spoken at various international conferences (eATP, eAssessment Question) and was a board member of the eAssessment Association.

Visit Avenida Consultancy to learn more about services that Matthew provides, such as support for item and test bank development, instructional design, content conversion and English language testing content development.

If you’re interested in the impact online assessment can make, take a look at the online assessment case studies here for more insights into how organisations have made the transition.