What does setting involve?
Whilst the overall assessment strategy and approach is specified very early in the lifecycle, setting assignment details needs to happen each time a group of students takes a particular module. This is often known as an instance of delivery.
At this point students receive details, usually in the form of an assignment brief, about precise topics, deadlines, learning outcomes assessed, marking criteria, and feedback arrangements.
What are we trying to achieve?
The purpose of setting is to achieve clarity for both students and staff: what is required, in what format, by when and how it will be assessed.
As a member of academic or administrative staff you need to be clear about how the work will be marked (see our section on marking and feedback workflows) and any deadlines for the return of marks and feedback. This means being clear about marking criteria and grading schemes and also any penalties for non-compliance with the stated requirements.
In the case of an overly long submission for example, is there a fixed penalty or will you only mark up to the word limit? Similarly what are the penalties for late submission and how will you deal with extenuating circumstances?
If you are using online submission you may need to give guidance on file format. You may also have specific requirements regarding naming conventions to ensure anonymity.
At this point you need to consider assessment scheduling to ensure workload for both students and staff is appropriately distributed.
How might we use technology at the setting stage of the lifecycle and what are the benefits?
You should make use of online templates for assignment briefs and marking rubrics, and use digital information about the curriculum to model assignment scheduling and to present information about deadlines.
Depending on the systems you have available, you could offer students a personalised calendar showing deadlines for assignment submission and the return of marks and feedback. This can provide the following benefits:
- Clarity for students about what is required for each assignment
- Clarity for students and staff about deadlines
- Ability to manage both staff and student workload
- Consistent and effective approach to feedback
- Effective quality assurance mechanisms.
What are the common problems?
Students are often confused about exactly what is required of them and staff find themselves repeating the same information many times. The University of Strathclyde has the following tips for students on what is required before they begin an assignment:
- Write a statement of requirements in your own words and check it out with other students
- Write down what you think is required and take this to the tutor for comment
- Ask the tutor if he/she has any completed examples of the kind of work you are asked to do. Make it clear that you are not going to copy from these and that you are mainly interested in the approach
- Students from other year groups may be a good source of advice about what makes a good or poor piece of work
- Check-out published writing in the assignment area on how to present arguments and writing style. Remember however that what you write for your assignment must be in your own words and not copied from other sources.
Case study: criteria crunching at the University of Winchester
Students rarely ingest and internalise the meaning of criteria and/or grade descriptors. They may read module handbooks, containing carefully explained statements of assessment criteria but find them difficult to understand and apply to tasks.
The words in assessment criteria and grade descriptors are often quite opaque and dense for students (and staff), and are rich in tacit understandings and disciplinary discourse. They require sophisticated interpretive skills.
This exercise engages students in making meaning from the criteria and discussing the notion of quality.
- Students read through the assessment criteria
- Individually they rewrite in their own words using whatever genre they are at ease with – from academic text to poetry to recipe instructions to rap
- In small groups they share their different interpretation, write up best suggestions on flip chart paper, pin on walls, wander around to see how other groups have interpreted these
- The lecturer facilitates refining the criteria and grade descriptors in class or online. This provides a student-friendly set of criteria for programmes/modules and/or tasks.
- Question the language of criteria and grade descriptors
- Question the instrumental use of the same
- Students creatively engage with the criteria in a critical way
- Students and staff engage in dialogue about the meaning of criteria and quality.
Assessment bunching is a common issue. This is a problem for individual students when a number of assessment deadlines fall closely together meaning that the student has less time to spend on each assignment and produces poorer quality submissions.
There is also a lack of opportunity for the student to receive formative feedback on one assignment and use this in a developmental way to help with future assignments.
Even where a course or programme is managed in such a way that assessment bunching is not a particular problem for individuals, it can pose a problem at institutional level. Manchester Metropolitan University undertook some modelling from its coursework submission database and identified significant peaks in assignment submissions (the highest being around 17,000 individual submissions due in a single week at the end of March 2012).
Such peaks place considerable strain on administrative processes and IT systems.
For feedback to be useful it needs to be received at a point where students can act on it. It also needs to explain the extent to which they have met the learning outcomes and what they need to do in order to achieve a better grade next time.
Feedback is however often left to the discretion of the individual academic. Inconsistencies in approach and ineffective feedback are often not picked up by unit or course leaders until it is too late.
What resources can help?
- The University of Hertfordshire assessment timelines tool aids planning by outlining the consequences of assessment timing
- A webinar from the University of Hertfordshire discusses the efficiency of assessment and introduces their assessment resource calculator
- The University of Hertfordshire has developed an example set of assessment criteria
- Manchester Metropolitan University has developed guidance on assessment grading, criteria and marking
- The University of Reading A-Z of assessment methods can help you choose the most appropriate type of assessment
- Rogo is an open source tool, developed by the University of Nottingham with support from Jisc, that can deliver a range of online assessments
- The University of Wisconsin has published a useful set of rubrics for different types of assessment
- Time to assess learning outcomes in e-learning (TALOE) is a web-based tool with associated guidance to help match suitable assessment types to learning outcomes.