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Principles of Assessment Design

Assessment tasks and associated criteria must test student attainment of the intended learning outcomes effectively and at the appropriate level. Where learning outcomes state skills and attitudes as well as knowledge, this should be appropriately reflected in the chosen assessment methods. This is known as constructive alignment.

Constructive alignment and learning outcomes:

Assessment must be aligned to learning outcomes; we tell our learners what we expect and then test them to see if they match, and to what level, those expectations. It is, therefore, essential to define learning outcomes effectively, efficiently and at the appropriate level as these will direct the method(s) by which you assess learning and will form the basis of your assessment criteria. Although you will be assessing against university-wide standards, the specific assessment criteria for your module need to define characteristics and standards of performance in line with the learning outcomes that you are assessing.

Intended learning outcomes capture the answer to the essential questions:

  • What do you want your students to know or to be able to do?
  • What will the student do that demonstrates learning?
  • What is the context within which that learning will be demonstrated?
  • How well will that student be required to demonstrate that learning?

Therefore the very first thing to determine when constructing learning outcomes is the knowledge, understanding, competencies, behaviours and attributes that you wish your student to demonstrate. The main point of intended learning outcomes is to make clear to learners what is expected of them; the intention is to share a common [to teachers and learners] understanding of expectations. This is more than just listing outcomes in the module and programme documentation; we need to discuss the outcomes with learners, to ensure they understand what is expected, and remind them that the outcomes should be guiding their learning and will be used to measure their progress. To do this it is helpful to have a standard ‘language’ and approach and the most common one is based on the Bloom taxonomy, as described below. Having made your expectations clear to learners you then need to decide how (and when) to assess their achievement of the outcomes.

A common language for outcomes:

When we assess learners we invariably do so by asking them to do something: write an essay or report; calculate answers; analyse information; present an argument; exhibit a behaviour; demonstrate a competence; etc. This means that the verbs in learning outcomes assume central significance.

Some verbs describe fairly straightforward achievement - for example, "to describe". Others can be more complex - for example, "to compare". A learner can only "compare" if s/he first "describes" both things that s/he is comparing. It follows, then, that comparing is more complex than describing. Hierarchies of cognitive learning outcomes based on their complexity and derived from ideas have evolved, and are now widely used. They draw upon a framework for categorising educational achievement, devised in 1956 by educational psychologist Benjamin S. Bloom with collaborators Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl, in order to promote higher order thinking. This device, commonly known as Bloom's Taxonomy, is a useful tool when authoring learning outcomes, particularly when linking outcomes to level descriptors. The taxonomy was revised by Anderson and Krathwohl (one of the original collaborators) in 2001 (the changes are neatly set out hereLink opens in a new window ), and the new model is illustrated below.

Verb tables threaten to fetishise language at the expense of authentic pedagogic thinking. Generating formulaic outcomes appears to be more about bureaucracy than pedagogy. You are not educational bureaucrats, you are educational leaders; deciding what it is the next generation of thinkers and doers in your discipline will be learning. Learning outcomes are powerful tools for designing learning and should be considered carefully.


Key question

Associated verbs


Can the student create a new point of view or product?

Assemble, construct, create, design, develop, formulate, write


Can the student justify a stand or position?

Appraise, argue, defend, judge, select, support, value, evaluate


Can the student distinguish between different parts?

Appraise, compare, contrast, criticise, differentiate, distinguish, examine, experiment, question, test


Can the student use information in a new way?

Choose, demonstrate, dramatise, employ, illustrate, locate, recognise, report, select, translate, paraphrase


Can the student explain ideas or concepts?

Classify, describe, discuss, explain, identify, locate, recognise, report, select, translate, paraphrase


Can the student recall or remember information?

Define, duplicate, list, memorise, recall, repeat, state

As noted above our expectations of learners include skills and attitudes as well as cognitive achievement. In the same way we describe cognitive outcomes using the sorts of verbs listed above, we should be clear about the skills that we expect (and to what level) and the attitudes and approaches that learners should be developing. Assessing skills and attitudes is, generally, more difficult that testing cognitive outcomes. How fair do you think your driving test was? How do we judge empathy, bedside manner, critical approach, etc.? Clarity over expectations and linking these to our assessment criteria makes the assessment process more transparent, fair and equitable.

For a more detailed discussion of these ideas see Butcher et al 2006 (chapter 3), Butcher 2015 and the resources available from this link to the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning DevelopmentLink opens in a new window.

Clear, accurate, consistent and timely information on the assessment system, assessment tasks and procedures should be made available to students, staff and other external assessors or examiners.

Clear, accurate, consistent and timely information on the assessment methods, purpose of assessment, procedures, timing and criteria should be accessible and communicated to students, staff and other external assessors or examiners. Staff and students need to engage in on-going dialogue about expectations and standards to achieve a shared understanding of assessment processes and practices. Students should have opportunities to develop and demonstrate the competence and confidence to evaluate the quality of their work against agreed standards. As Sadler suggests, in order to improve, students must have the capacity to monitor and evaluate the quality of their own work during actual production (Sadler, 1989: 119). This means that they need to have an appreciation of what high quality work is and need to be equipped with the evaluative skills needed to compare the quality of what they are producing to assessment standards that they understand. Therefore, assessment design should explicitly address the means by which assessment literacy will be developed, for example, through formative assessment (Principle 5 ), use of exemplars, marking exercises, activities which engage students in dialogue about assessment criteria, etc.

For more on assessment literacy see the links to the resources made available by JISC Link opens in a new window and the University of ReadingLink opens in a new window .

As far as is possible without compromising academic standards, inclusive and equitable assessment should ensure that tasks and procedures do not disadvantage any group or individual. Across a programme, students must have the opportunity to engage with multiple modes of assessment, so as to avoid inequalities between students resulting in uneven recognition of abilities.

Inclusivity is a complex and multidimensional concept that eludes easy definition and embraces a wide range of differences, including for example declared disability, specific cultural, ethic or social background, religion or belief, sexual orientation, age, full-time or part time status.

“Inclusive learning and teaching in higher education refers to the ways in which pedagogy, curricula and assessment are designed and delivered to engage students in learning that is meaningful, relevant and accessible to all. It embraces a view of the individual and individual difference as the source of diversity that can enrich the lives and learning of others” (Hockings, 2010: 1).

Inclusive assessment seeks equity in assessment for all students; it affords the opportunity to all students to engage with and demonstrate their learning. ‘All students’ refers to all students irrespective of background or any protected characteristics, studying at any level and by any mode (e.g. undergraduate and postgraduate; full-time and part-time; distance, work-based and on-campus learners; HE apprentices). It is not simply achieved through ad hoc provision of modified assessment made in response to the needs of specific individual students, i.e. ‘reasonable adjustment’. An inclusive approach to assessment ensures that assessment choices do not manifest bias, and do not advantage some students while disadvantaging others as they demonstrate achievement of intended learning outcomes. For example, is accurate spelling and grammar essential when assessing understanding, do students need to express themselves in a particular register, use an extended vocabulary, or write within a particular academic or disciplinary conventions? Or could intended learning outcomes be demonstrated via another medium – utilising oral, visual or performance skills?

In short, inclusive assessment shares many of the principles of good assessment design: it utilises diverse methods; it is well aligned with intended learning outcomes; it is transparent and clearly communicated; it develops assessment literacy; it ensures feedback is individualised and effective.

Assessment tasks should primarily reflect the nature of the discipline or subject but should also ensure that students have the opportunity to develop a range of generic skills and capabilities.

Assessment influences learning and shapes the experience for students, signalling what is important, focusing student effort and providing opportunities for feedback. Appropriate assessment should be an integral part of the learning process and should promote learning as well as measuring how well students have achieved intended learning outcomes. It is sometimes useful to think in terms of assessment of learning and assessment for learning; to clarify we will give two examples.

Assessment of learning: the assessment is designed to measure and give feedback on achievement of the learning outcomes. For example, if you expect students to evidence employability skills then this means that the specific skills you are looking for would be embedded in the learning outcomes (alignment). The assessment method would require the students to demonstrate the skills and the assessment criteria would enable you to differentiate between the level and standard of achievement. You tell students what you expect, you give them opportunities to learn and develop the attributes, then you test to see how well they have achieved the outcomes and then you give them feedback on how well they have done and how to improve.

Assessment for learning: in this case the students learn as a result of the assessment task. For example you might ask students, in groups, to produce a video to demonstrate their individual ability to give an oral presentation. The content of the video, the recordings of individual students giving a presentation, will evidence achievement of the learning outcomes related to oral presentations; assessment of learning. The process of making the video will be assessment for learning; students will be developing recording and editing skills as well as team working, but these are the means to an end rather than the end itself. As a result of the assessment the learners will have developed additional skills and capabilities. Of course, learners will need feedback on how well they are developing these new skills (feedback is an essential part of the assessment / learning loop) but this aspect of the assessment will probably not carry any marks / grades (see also formative assessment – Principle 6).

The scheduling of assignments and the amount of assessed work required should provide a reliable and valid profile of achievement without overloading staff or students.

Assessment should be manageable both in terms of amount and timing; for both staff and students.

For staff this is best achieved when module leaders across a programme collectively map learning outcomes and related assessment and negotiate the assessment schedule. Therefore assessment strategies for individual modules should not be decided in isolation but integrated in the wider programme design; programme-level assessment. When we look at assessment across modules and levels we can avoid repetition (assessing the same things multiple times) and ensure progression (assignments that build on previous modules) and so increase demand and complexity within the assessments. This approach also allows us to think about integrative assessment; where a number of outcomes are assessed at the same time. A final-year project is an ideal example of this type of assessment; learners have to draw on a multiplicity of attributes and skills in order to complete successfully the project - research and enquiry skills, knowledge of and evaluation of sources, integration of knowledge and understanding, analysis, synthesis, creativity, report writing and, possibly, presentation skills. However, we do not need to wait until the final year to design assignments that require learners to evidence, say, a range of attributes that are developed across several modules.

We also need to think about equivalence and load of assignments when we start to diversify assessment. Suppose we have a twenty-credit module that is assessed by two 2000-word essays; is this a reasonable assessment load? In the same department we have another twenty-credit module that is assessed by a twenty-minute oral presentation, a group project and a poster. Is this a fair comparison of assessment load? Is the second module being under- or over- assessed? Yes, the method needs to match the intended learning outcomes, but we also need to be fair when thinking about the load and demand on the students.

For students the assessments must, of course, align with the learning outcomes but also we need to ensure that students understand the type of assessment and what is expected of them. This means that they must have an opportunity to practise, and gain feedback on, any methods of assessment that they will take.

The same point about assessment load applies to students as mentioned above - if they are taking several modules and feel that the workload varies considerably between modules of equal credits then we need to rethink and check equivalence.

Lastly we need to think about timing of assessment; if all of the deadlines for submission fall at the same time then we may be setting unreasonable demands on learners and this will impact on their ability to demonstrate what they truly know and can do - which is the point of assessment. A simple schedule of assignments deadlines across a year can highlight issues of this kind; back to the assessment schedule mentioned above.

Formative and summative assessment should be incorporated into programmes to ensure that the purposes of assessment are adequately addressed and students can learn to engage with assessment effectively.

There should be a good balance of formative assessment (also termed assessment for learning) and summative assessment (also termed assessment of learning) across all modules and programmes.

Formative assessment enables staff to monitor student learning and to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need extra effort and work. In addition, formative assessment highlights when students are struggling with concepts or ideas and means that we can address problems promptly. As part of this learning, assessment and feedback loop students also gain an understanding of the criteria that set the standards against which they are measured; they get to know the benchmarks. This means there are gains for both the learning and teaching process, so well worth the investment of time.

Formative assessments are often described as low stakes which means that they do not carry marks or grades, or if they do the marks are relatively small; just a few percentage points. This, of course, raises the issue of motivation - student may not see the learning gain from formative assessment if they are purely focussed on the mark gain from summative assessment, as so may not make much, if any, effort to complete the work. This means that we need to convince our learners of the value of formative assessment and help them realise its developmental purposes and that it is designed to help them learn more effectively by giving them feedback on their performance and on how it can be improved and/or maintained. Encouraging students to reflect on feedback and think about what the feedback is telling them about achievement and development (reflective practice) is an important part of this. One of the aims of higher education, whatever the discipline, is to produce graduates who are independent learners. A vital aspect of becoming an independent learner is being able to monitor one’s own learning and measure one’s own achievement and self-recognise strengths and weaknesses (some term this as assessment as learning).

Summative assessment is used to measure the extent of a learner's success in meeting the assessment criteria (the standards) used to gauge the intended learning outcomes of a module or programme. Summative assessment is high stakes as this is what decides the marks and grades; which inform progression and classification decisions. Formative assessment should ensure that students are ready for summative assessment; that they understand how they will be assessed, what the assessment expects and the criteria against which they will be measured.

Summative assessment is not only high stakes for the learner, it is also high stakes for the markers and institution. This is why we have double or sample marking processes to ensure consistency of standards within modules, examination boards to ensure uniformity across programmes and external examiners to ensure comparison across institutions.

Students are entitled to individual and/or group feedback on submitted formative assessment tasks on every module, and on summative tasks, where appropriate. The nature, extent and timing of feedback for each assessment task should be made clear to students in advance to ensure that feedback is given and received effectively by students.

Assessment strategies should be designed to engage students in meaningful dialogue about their work. Feedback should help students to understand how they are doing and how they can improve, and the nature and purpose of feedback should be made clear to students so as to allow them to act on it and use it effectively. This means that students should be made aware of how they will receive feedback, how they can ask for clarifications and how they should use it to enhance their learning and improve their performance.

As National Student Survey (NSS) results tell us, feedback is a contentious issue in higher education. Despite the fact that we, the markers, spend hours annotating students’ work and giving detailed oral and written feedback, they, the students, seem to want more and they want it sooner. How can we square this apparent circle?

Feed-back and feed-forward: learners need to know not only how well they have done (that is what the feed-back tells them) but also how to improve (that is the feed-forward tells them). This means that we need to ensure that we are always including both in any ‘feedback’ that we give to learners.

Feedback is … both formal and informal. As you walk around the lab talking to students about their work; as you comment about an idea in a seminar or tutorial; as you answer a question in the corridor; as you …. Students need to realise that this is all feedback; it is not just the words and marks that we write on their work. We need to have this conversation and get the students thinking about where and how they get feedback. In addition, we need to get them thinking about how they use that feedback.

Using feedback: Many of us have front-sheets for students to include when they submit work; for all of the bureaucratic bits. Add a section that asks the student to say how they have used the feedback received on the last essay / lab report / presentation / whatever to improve this piece of work …. and comment on it.

Schedules: Many of our modules include a number of assessment points over the term or year. Provide a schedule to show when work will be submitted and when feedback will be received and in this way show that students will have time to make use of the feedback from assignment 1 to inform assignment 2 etc. It is then important to stick to the schedule. Also, look at the schedules for all of the modules that run across a term / year and discuss the opportunities for cross-fertilisation of feedback. If Dr X is giving feedback on an essay on module1 prior to the hand-in date for an essay in module2 …

Timeliness & expectations: you will never be quick enough! Detailed and considered marking takes time, particularly if there are a large number of scripts. At Warwick, markers have twenty working days from the original submission deadline to return feedback and marks to students. Such timing is reasonable given the workload and multiple responsibilities of academic staff. However, it is sometimes too long in the eyes of the students. So maybe the answer is to respond more quickly but on a smaller scale. At the next lecture … “Thank you all for submitting your essays / reports on time last week, you will be receiving detailed individual feedback by (date). But meantime, whilst the work is still fresh in your minds, I looked at a dozen or so scripts and these are the five high-points that I read and these are the five low-points. As I go through them think about your essay and think about how they could help you with you next piece of work both in this module and your other modules ...” In this way we get the learners taking more responsibility for their own learning (assessment as learning even - see Principle 6) and we are giving almost immediate feedback. OK, it took an hour to skim read those dozen essays, but the payback, as was noted in Earth Sciences at the University of Leeds, will be well worth it.

Personal tutoring: Most of us act as personal tutors when we discuss both academic and pastoral matters with students. Make one aspect of every meeting feedback; ask students to bring along any feedback that they have had on work since the last meeting and spend a short time getting them to think about what it is telling them and how they will be using it to improve. This sort of approach will encourage our students to be more reflective about the feedback they receive and so move them on towards becoming autonomous learners (see Principle 6) and using assessment as learning.

Further resources: Boud, D., 2010. Assessment 2020: Seven propositions for assessment reform in higher education. Australian Learning and Teaching Council / University of Technology, Sydney.

Members of the ‘AI in Education’ subgroup of the WIHEA Diverse Assessment Learning Circle have developed helpful guidance on designing assessment that supports the use of AI - click here  to access this resource.

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