What does specifying involve?
Specifying is the process of determining the details of a course or programme of study and consequently the assessment strategy within it.
In further education much of this will be prescribed by an awarding body but in higher education there is a lot of freedom of choice. Details of each module will be recorded in a specification, ideally online however paper-based processes continue to exist in many institutions.
Specifying takes place following a new course proposal or when an existing course undergoes periodic review. Additionally there will be a process of making minor modifications if there is a desire to change the assessment approach.
At the specifying stage you will normally determine the type of assignment, give an idea of the scale eg, a 4,000 word essay, and indicate its value as a percentage of the overall marks for that module.
What are we trying to achieve at the specifying stage?
We are trying to show that students can demonstrate achievement of the desired learning outcomes for each module or other piece of learning they have undertaken. There are likely to be many different ways to demonstrate that a learning outcome has been achieved so it's important to be creative and innovative at this stage.
Some types of assignment can model things that students may have to do in the workplace and help them develop future employability skills. Other types of assignment may equally demonstrate a grasp of course content but without evidencing a range of other transferable skills.
Manchester Metropolitan University's guidance on specifying and assessment strategy asks will the assessment type enable students to demonstrate the learning outcomes and will you look forward to marking it? This will help you to consider assessment design, as a poorly designed assignment might leave you marking numerous identical submissions. A well-designed brief can generate originality and individuality in student approaches.
Assignments that demand some individuality of approach also make it much more difficult for students to plagiarise.
How might we use technology at the specifying stage and what are the benefits?
At this stage of the lifecycle you will require some form of course management system that contains the definitive version of course and module specifications. This can provide the following benefits:
- A central view so that all stakeholders see the same version of the information
- Information that can be re-used for many purposes including course and module handbooks
- A curriculum overview showing the relationship between assessment and learning outcomes at module and programme level
- A means of comparing programmes to identify effective practice
- A source of inspiration for staff designing new programmes
What are the common problems?
In many institutions a lot of course and module specification information is still either paper-based or held in a range of local systems. This leads to problems in knowing which is the correct version. As a result it can be difficult to generate accurate information that flows through the lifecycle and is readily reusable for a variety of purposes and stakeholders.
Modularisation of the curriculum means that learning and assessment is broken down into chunks. Often those chunks don't build back up to a close match with a course or programme's desired learning outcomes. This is exacerbated by the difficulties in having a clear programme level overview.
Institutions that have done some basic curriculum analytics often discover that some learning outcomes are assessed multiple times whilst others are not assessed at all. Many realise that they are over-assessing causing unnecessary work for staff and stress for students.
Because specifying and major reviews of these specifications are done infrequently, changes in the time periods between reviews are inevitable. For new courses there may be a considerable time lag (of one to two years) between course validation and initial delivery. Often this results in course delivery by new staff who have little ownership of the original design.
There are quality processes to manage changes in the interim but staff often find the processes so arduous that they find ways to implement change "under the radar" of the formal minor modifications processes. This exacerbates the issues around having the correct version of information.
There is a lot of risk aversion in relation to assessment design. Staff fear being too creative in case their assessment is too challenging and brings down average marks for a cohort, or they incur the disapproval of external examiners. Students don't like being guinea pigs in any aspect of their learning and particularly not in relation to assessment. This is in spite of the fact that more flexible and creative assessment design can help to ensure fairness and inclusivity.
Differences in marks relating to factors like gender or ethnicity can be caused as much by the assessment design as the actual marking process. Technology has a role to play here in ensuring that the range and size of file types that lend themselves to e-submission is not a limiting factor in the choice of assignment type.
The specifying stage of the lifecycle causes a particular set of problems in FE and skills. This is due to the complexity of awarding body criteria for assessing against particular learning outcomes and the frequency with which the specifications can change.
What resources can help with the specifying stage?
- The University of Ulster's viewpoints' staff development materials aid curriculum design with an emphasis on assessment and feedback
- The University of Hertfordshire's guidance outlines how to apply assessment for learning principles to assessment design
- The University of Bradford's programme assessment strategies project generated this short guide on programme focused assessment
- Blackboard produced a useful rubric to aid course design