"Good assessments create a good educational experience, set out high expectations, foster appropriate study behaviours and stimulate students’ inquisitiveness, motivation and interest for learning."
University of Hertfordshire
Why is assessment design important?
Assessment and feedback is the cornerstone of formal education and forms a significant part of both academic and administrative workload.
Survey data such as that from the national student survey (NSS) regularly shows that students are less satisfied with assessment and feedback than with any other aspect of the HE experience. Good assessment design is at the heart of improving this aspect of the learning experience and achieving better learning outcomes overall.
Good design should make the assessment experience inspiring and motivating for both students and staff. It should create a positive climate that encourages interaction and dialogue. Assessment should appear relevant and authentic and wherever possible allowed students to draw on their personal experience and to exercise choice with regard to topics, format and timing of assessment.
There should be effective mechanisms for generating high quality feedback and ensuring that learners understand and act on feedback. Reflective skills should be developed that help students direct and regulate their own learning and support the learning of their peers.
What are the common problems?
In a modular curriculum each module tends to be assessed separately. This can lead to a range of problems:
The assessment methods used in short modules are limited
They don't really allow for formative approaches and the assessment of learning outcomes that focus on slowly-developed, complex, and high order skills and understanding.
Students concentrate on each module independently
They tick off each module in turn and fail to see the links between them. Staff can be similarly focused on their own module responsibilities.
We tend to over assess
This causes issues of staff and student workload. Where mappings take place at programme level some learning outcomes are assessed multiple times whilst others are missed completely.
Strong focus on traditional assessment formats
These approaches, such as essays and unseen exams, are not necessarily the best means of testing desired learning outcomes and developing the skills that students need for their future working lives (see our section on employability and assessment).
Students don't understand what is expected of them
Simply telling them about criteria and standards is not enough; the overall assessment design must offer effective opportunities to engage with the criteria and opportunities to practice different activities before they are assessed (see also our section on assessment patterning and scheduling).
Feedback mechanisms are often ineffective
Feedback may arrive too late to be useful and it may be short term and corrective rather than addressing skills development that is relevant to the overall learning outcomes of the course (see our section on feedback and feed forward).
Reflective skills are under developed
Research has shown that developing reflective skills, particularly using peer review, is one of the best ways of enhancing learning but such techniques are still underused (see our sections on peer assessment, peer review and student self-reflection).
How might we use technology to support assessment design and what are the benefits?
Curriculum management systems can help give an overview of assessment forms and patterns across a range of modules in order to aid programme focused assessment. This ensures that the desired learning outcomes of the overall study programme are effectively addressed.
Online assessment briefs and grading criteria make it easy for students to find information about what learning outcomes are being assessed, how they will be assessed and what the standards are.
Technology can help to ensure parity and fairness of assessment by providing alternative formats of information and other support for students with a disability (see our section on inclusive assessment). It can also provide students with a choice of formats to deliver an assignment. Assessment formats that are novel and interesting encourage creativity, inquisitive enquiry and participation.
Generating feedback in digital formats can speed up the process and make it more usable by students and easier to store and refer to in the future.
Technology can also support peer review and assessment, and is usually necessary to enable the use of such techniques with large class sizes.
How does assessment design relate to the assessment and feedback lifecycle?
It relates closely to where you are specifying the overall assessment strategy for the programme of study. You also need to refer to these intentions at the setting and supporting stages to ensure that you effectively implement your intended approach for each cohort of students.
Because the lifecycle is an iterative process, at each stage of reflecting you consider whether to make any changes to assessment design for future instances of delivery.
Taking a principled approach to assessment and feedback practice
An approach that many Jisc projects have found central to improving assessment and feedback practice is defining the educational principles that underpin assessment and feedback in their institution.
By defining shared educational values, academics, learning technologists and those responsible for quality assurance and administration have worked together to look at whether their principles are genuinely reflected in practice. Where improvement is required they have moved forward on the basis of a shared understanding of what is fundamentally important.
In a short guide, Why use assessment and feedback principles? Professor David Nicol highlights the fact that they can:
- Help put important ideas into operation through strategy and policy
- Provide a common language
- Provide a reference point for evaluating change in the quality of educational provision
- Summarise and simplify the research evidence for those who don't have time to read all the research literature.
Principles need to be written in a way that requires action rather than passive acceptance if they are to effect change. You also need to bear in mind that generic principles can be interpreted in various ways. For example, the principle ‘help clarify what good performance is’ can be implemented in ways that are teacher-centric or in ways that actively engage students.
A starting point for many institutions has been to review the well-known re-engineering assessment practices (REAP) principles from the University of Strathclyde.
Assessment for learning principles
(adapted from those used at the University of Hertfordshire)
Good practice in assessment for learning
Engages students with the assessment criteria
Assessment should be used to help reinforce expected standards. The criteria should be communicated in clear, easily accessible language, free of jargon, which students can understand, whilst setting high expectations of the learner. Interactions should help students engage with the assessment criteria.
Supports personalised learning
Students each have individual needs, motivation and interests. In order to provide all students with opportunities to demonstrate their learning, the profile of assessments must anticipate the needs of a diverse student body. Good practice ensures that students have variety in the assessments and where possible gives them some individual choice. For example in the topic of an assessment or in the method/format of the assessment.
Ensures feedback leads to improvement
Feedback is an essential aspect of assessment. For feedback to be effective it needs to be prompt and make sense to the students so that they can develop their learning and feed this into their future practice. Good feedback provides a commentary on the student’s submission, offers advice on how work could be developed and provides opportunities for students to demonstrably engage with the feedback. Feedback should also feed forward.
Focuses on student development
Assessment has a significant influence on student motivation and the ways in which students approach their learning. Timely, meaningful assessment develops the students’ interests, motivations and encourages them to engage in their study to meet the learning outcomes.
Well planned assessment facilitates the student to reflect on their own learning and self-assess. Assessments should encourage effective learning behaviours ie deep not surface, understanding not just memory. These include spending appropriate time on tasks, with effort spread across topics and weeks and making links across knowledge domains.
Assessment should encourage positive beliefs and build student confidence.
Good assessment supports the development of a learning community and provides opportunities for students to engage in dialogue about their learning. Teachers should also have an opportunity to engage in dialogue with students and colleagues to help them shape their teaching and engage in staff, module and programme development.
Considers staff and student effort
Good assessment should distribute student effort across the study-period and topic areas and demand an appropriate amount of student effort. Good assessment design will not overload students or teachers and will ensure there is adequate time for teachers to create and deliver feedback in ways that support student learning.
Designing programme or module assessment in three easy stages
(adapted from understanding assessment by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA))
Decide on the intended learning outcomes. What should the students be able to do on completion of the course, and what underpinning knowledge and understanding will they need in order to do it that they could not do when they started?
Devise the assessment task(s). If you have written precise learning outcomes this should be easy because the assessment should be whether or not they can satisfactorily demonstrate achievement of the outcomes.
Devise the learning activities necessary (including formative assessment tasks) to enable the students to satisfactorily undertake the assessment task(s). These stages should be conducted iteratively, with each stage informing the others to ensure coherence.
The likelihood that more than one iteration might occur reﬂects the need to ensure what is sometimes referred to as 'alignment' between the learning outcomes at programme level and those at module level; in other words to ensure that the learning outcomes at programme level are actually being addressed through the combination of modules.
Our video outlines how the University of Strathclyde implemented new models of assessment practice:
What resources can help?
- The University of Ulster's viewpoints' staff development materials aid curriculum design with an emphasis on assessment and feedback.
- Read our case study on transforming assessment and feedback practice at Harper Adams University and Cardiff Metropolitan University.
- The University of Hertfordshire's guidance outlines how to apply assessment for learning principles to assessment design. Their activity cards can help with designing assessment for learning.
- The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)'s guide gives recommendations on how to implement institutional change in assessment and feedback practices.
- Read the study on the inﬂuence of disciplinary assessment patterns on student learning.
- The University of Bradford's programme assessment strategies project generated a short guide on programme focused assessment and a series of accompanying case studies
- Oxford Brookes University's guide outlines how to take a social constructivist approach to assessment in three easy steps (pdf)
- Birmingham City University's assessment design checklist is a useful tool and reference guide.
Rust, C., O’Donovan, B. & Price, M. (2005), ‘A social constructivist assessment process model: how the research literature shows us this could be best practice’, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 30, No. 3, 233-241